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Helping others see

In 1991, Frederick Richburg, medical director of Valley Eye Institute, decided to provide a day of free cataract surgery for people of all ages who couldn't afford it. Twenty-one surgeries were performed that May 18 as part of Mission Cataract.

Jan 21, 2015

By Margaret Slaby / The Fresno Bee - 01/25/07 04:53:09

Dr. Chad Reder, left, and Dr. Frederick Richburg are a part of Mission Cataract USA, a nationwide nonprofit organization that provides free cataract surgery to those who don't have insurance or can't afford to pay.

In 1991, Frederick Richburg, medical director of Valley Eye Institute, decided to provide a day of free cataract surgery for people of all ages who couldn't afford it. Twenty-one surgeries were performed that May 18 as part of Mission Cataract.

"I was invited by a group that flies to Mexico to do free cataract surgery and I started thinking, 'Why can't we do people right here?' " says Richburg, who retired in 2004 from private practice and as Valley Eye Institute's medical director.

Sixteen years later, 9,200 surgeries have been performed in 36 states by Mission Cataract USA, a nonprofit organization where eye doctors, nurses and other staff volunteer their services; supplies are donated. The surgeries are for those who have no way to pay, including access to private health insurance, Medicare or Medi-Cal.

"The original idea was to have all the surgeries on the same day," says Sheree Petree, who helped Richburg launch Mission Cataract USA and is its executive director. "But the practices do it when it suits their schedule."

Mission Cataract Day officially is the second Saturday in May. Some eye centers, including Valley Eye Institute, perform surgeries on this day. Debbie Tsou, Valley Eye Institute's office manager who has been involved with the program since its inception, estimates the center does six to ten surgeries each Mission Cataract Day.

Richburg, medical director at Valley Eye Institute from 1981-2004, says the idea was for doctors to do the surgeries at their own centers. Richburg performed Mission Cataract USA surgeries from 1991 to 2002.

In 1991, all 21 surgeries were done at the Valley Eye Institute. The following year, 50 surgeries were performed at six centers throughout the state.

The program went nationwide in 1993 and changed its name to Mission Cataract USA; 1,100 surgeries were done at 112 centers. From 1994 to 1996, 4,500 surgeries were performed at 432 centers. Last year, 14 centers combined for 65 surgeries; those affiliated with Mission Cataract USA attribute the drop to lack of funding for marketing and publicity.

According to Mission Cataract USA's Web site, a cataract is the clouding of the lens in the eye and is part of the aging process; other causes include birth defects, injuries or infection. About 15 million people worldwide are blinded by cataracts.

Petree says a typical cataract surgery takes 20 to 30 minutes and has a 95% success rate. Prospective Mission Cataract USA patients usually are screened the week before surgery; free follow-ups are done with an optometrist.

"On the day of the surgery they go home with a patch on their eye," Petree says. "They come back and the doctor removes the patch and they can see. It's a very emotional day when the patch comes off."

Chad Reder, medical director at Valley Eye Institute since June 2004, is preparing for his third year performing surgeries for Mission Cataract USA; he estimates he's done 12 to 15 over the past two years. He says the cost of surgery varies but averages about $5,000.

"We're trying to do it for people where it's going to make a difference," Reder says of Mission Cataract USA. "We want to reach out to that population where the cracks are too large and they've fallen through."

The reporter can be reached at mslaby@fresnobee.com or at (559) 441-6758.

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