Bringing the International Mission Trip Concept to the U.S.

Emily Graves, MD, FACS has done an enormous amount of international volunteer work throughout her ophthalmic career, and through that work, she soon realized that there was a large unmet need right in her own community.

 Dr. Graves and her co-director Brian Fowler, MD, decided to bring the mission trip approach to Memphis, Tennessee. “Instead of doing individual surgeries throughout the year, we wanted to attempt something larger,” Dr. Graves said. “Our goal was to complete 50 surgeries in 1 day using donated supplies like we do for the mission trips. We also wanted to see if we could recruit volunteers to donate their time to complete the surgeries.”

Through the dedicated work of Dr. Graves and her colleagues, the generosity of corporate sponsors, and the ASCRS Foundation’s Operation Sight program, the first annual Ivan Marais Cataract-a-Thon emerged.

Now in year two of the annual Cataract-a-Thon, Dr. Graves shared the successes and tips on volunteering in an interview with the ASCRS Foundation.

Foundation Staff (FS): What was the biggest difference in this year’s event compared to last years?

Emily Graves, MD (EG): Those who decide to change the world for the better have to take risk and accept failure. This mission has been no exception to that.  We knew there would be failures along the way and we worked hard to minimize them, learn from them, all the while giving the very best care to our patients.  The biggest difference between this year and last year is the efficiency of the event combined with the number of patients we were able to care for.  By accepting failure and preparing for it, we were able to be successful in our first year and grow to be even better in the second.   In the first year, we had to work out the many details of the operation and we learned so much in the process.  We purposefully limited the number of patients we cared for to 30 because we knew there would be unforeseen failures and difficulties along the way.   This year we were much more efficient and therefore able to care for nearly 50 patients.  We expect that with each passing year we will learn how to grow this local mission to be more successful, efficient, and cost effective, thereby benefitting more patients than we could have possibly imagined.

FS: How many staff members participated in this year’s event?

EG: Our volunteer list was incredible. We had three operating rooms running simultaneously, but we had enough people volunteer that in some cases we were able to allow volunteers to work just a few hours on one day if they wanted; many people worked all day and were ready to keep going! We had six Operation Sight Volunteer Surgeons, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (Hamilton Eye Institute) ophthalmology residents, four anesthesiologists, eight nurse anesthetists, nineteen nurses, fourteen surgical technologists, dozens of administrative volunteers, several students from Southern College of Optometry, and of course the many, many Lions from Mid-South Lions Club and Bartlett Lions Club. Over the course of two days, we had nearly one hundred generous people give their time and talent to help make this event a success.

FS: How many patients were treated both in your first cataract-a-thon and second?

 EG: In the First Annual Ivan Marais Cataract-a-Thon, we did 30 surgeries in one day. We had such success that we expanded and made it a two-day event for the 2nd Cataract-a-Thon and provided surgery to 49 patients. However, you don’t have to make it a big, annual event to be a part of the Operation Sight program; a volunteer surgeon can use Operation Sight to help offset costs for individual charitable cases throughout the year.

FS: What did you find to be the most rewarding or enjoyed the most about this event?

 EG: This question is always so difficult for me, because it is hard to choose just one aspect of the Cataract-a-Thon that I love the most. I am always blown away by the generosity of the volunteers, many of whom take vacation days to participate in our Cataract-a-Thon events. It is almost as if people are looking for a way to give back – they just needed someone to ask.  There are many opportunities for those of us who have the privilege to live in the United States to give back, especially in Memphis:  Some give to St Jude.  Some go on mission trips internationally.   With this mission, those who truly want to help their community were able to do so right in their own back yards, helping their neighbors. We love that we provided an avenue for other passionate healthcare workers to make the world better, starting right here in Memphis.  

FS: There are many residents and practicing ophthalmologists who are looking to bring Operation Sight to their medical program or hospital, but have difficulties doing so because they do not own their own surgery center. What advice would you give to these doctors?

EG: I also don’t own my own surgery center, but I have a fantastic relationship with Memphis Surgery Center where I do most of my cataract surgeries, so I sat down with them and said, “Can we just try one patient and see how it goes?” The generous donation of surgical supplies and medications dramatically reduce the cost to the surgery center, and ever since that first case, the surgery center has been very supportive and enthusiastic about helping these patients.

Dr. Graves wants interested residents and surgeons who do not own their own surgery centers to know “I want to help them get it running! I have checklists and contact information and all kinds of things–No need for them to reinvent the wheel!”

We thank Dr. Graves and all our generous volunteers for all that they do through our Operation Sight program.

Interested in learning more on Operation Sight? Visit our Operation Sight volunteer portal at or contact Evelyn Morales at