Make A Difference with Operation Sight

Emily Graves, MD - co-director of the University of Tennessee Hamilton Eye Institute Lion's Club - has done considerable international volunteer work during her ophthalmic career. But she's also come to understand the significant need right in her own community. Dr. Graves and her co-director, Brian Fowler, MD, decided to address that need in Memphis. “Instead of doing individual surgeries throughout the year, we wanted to attempt something larger.”

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

Foundation Staff (FS): Can you please provide us with some background information on your annual Cataract-a-Thon?

Dr. Emily Graves (EG): My co-director, Brian Fowler, and I have done a lot of international mission work. But you come home and realize there’s a huge need right here in your own backyard. So, we decided to bring the mission trip approach to Memphis. Instead of doing individual surgeries throughout the year, we said, let’s try to bring 50 patients in and do their surgeries all in one day, and let’s see if we can get supplies donated, just like we do for missions, and see if we can get volunteers to donate their time and get the surgery center to waive its fees for one day -- so the cost of the surgery becomes a fraction of what it would normally cost.

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 chooses 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 programs or hospitals, 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 support from Operation Sight combined with the generous donation of surgical supplies and medications from pharmaceutical companies dramatically reduced 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. Brian Fowler: I also have a great relationship with the Hamilton Eye Institute Surgery Center. This is again a surgery center that we don’t own. The key is influencing the people in charge to do good. Sometimes this involves a meeting, sometimes coffee, other times it’s just doing good by them when working there. It’s truly amazing how many people want to be involved in something that helps the world around them. It truly is as simple as asking and being passionate and kind.

FS: What was your greatest challenge in getting your event approved?

EG: The greatest challenge was convincing the “players” in each organization that they needed to be a part of this great event.   This included the Hamilton Eye Institute Surgery Center, Methodist Solus, The Mid-South Lions, and the multitude of volunteers including surgeons and staff.   The organization of this many people, brought together to do an awesome event, took some tremendous leadership.   If we accept the basic premise that most people want to help others, then we always have an “in” to get others involved.   Dr. Fowler and I worked hard to convince all the leaders of these great organizations that we could work together to care for the less fortunate in our community, while providing a benefit to everyone involved.  Just as important is maintaining the feel and flow of a “normal” workday for the surgeons and staff so that the outcomes provided to our patients was truly equal to another surgery day on insured patients.  We worked very hard to make the screening and operative days match the normal processes in place for a regular workday.   While difficult, it was a focus of our leadership, and it worked.   

FS:Is there anything else you’d like to share?

EG: Many throughout the world are caring for those less fortunate with blinding eye diseases that are entirely curable.  We are merely one group, in Memphis, Tennessee, that found a way to make this work.   We love that there are so many other passionate eye surgeons doing the same thing for their local and international communities.   Our mission is to grow Memphis by changing lives, and bring the same formula to other communities throughout the United States.  We are entirely open to learning from others who have done similar and strongly believe that the more people we have aligned to this mission, the better the results.    Our mission started with one statement by Dr. Fowler in a Lions club meeting, “We should do a cataract-a-thon here in Memphis for the uninsured.”   It was a seemingly small statement that led eventually to over 100 volunteers committed to now nearly 80 patient’s lives – and counting -- being changed forever with the gift of sight.   Good things start small, take hard work, and grow over time.   We are doing just that.  So many others have done the same and we are incredibly grateful to be part of the force for good in this world. 

Dr. Graves’ advice to other ophthalmologists who are interested in volunteering through Operation Sight is “Don’t hesitate. Get involved. Operation Sight helps change lives.”

Join Drs. Graves and Fowler and explore the opportunity of bringing the ASCRS Foundation's Operation Sight Program to your residency or fellowship program.

For more information on Operation Sight, please contact Evelyn Morales at or by phone at 703-788-5786.


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