Souwara Khatun, an elderly woman breaks down in front of the camera while recounting her experiences. “I was too scared to get the surgery last time. I came here with some clothes and bedding and then lost my nerve and went back” she narrates, her unbandaged eye welling up with tears. “I steeled myself and went through with it finally, and I am hoping to get my eyesight back.”
Souwara is one of 400 cataract surgery patients of Friendship’s Vision for Coastal Communities project, in partnership with Standard Chartered Bank (SCB). The bank’s biggest CSR activity worldwide is their Seeing is Believing campaign, which seeks to prevent and cure reversible blindness, specifically targeting poor and marginalized people. Present in over 30 countries, it started in 2003 in Bangladesh and SCB has partnered with Friendship to mark its 15th anniversary by providing 400 cataract surgeries using Friendship’s facilities in the southern coastal regions, particularly the Rongdhonu Friendship Hospital (RFH). Other organizations partnered with the bank include Sight Savers International, Hellen Keller International, Orbis et al.
Bitopi Das Chowdhury, Head of Corporate Affairs of Standard Chartered Bank Bangladesh, states “This is the first time we are working with Friendship. In areas like Kutubdia, where there is a great need for healthcare and people cannot get to the mainland hospitals, Friendship is the one that is providing the service to their doorsteps through their hospitals and integrated 3-tier healthcare system. RFH will be providing diagnosis, medication, eyeglasses and when necessary corrective cataract surgeries. I hope we can continue this for many more people for a very long time.”
Speaking of the impact, she says “The cataract surgeries are something that only takes 5 minutes to do, and 3 days of recovery. However, 79% of the coastal people don’t even know what the procedure might be, how long it might take etc. That’s because it is one of the most neglected ailments. If someone has a headache or a stomach ache, it has a sense of urgency that compels them to seek immediate attention. However, with the slowly creeping blindness, it gets neglected for far too long. That is why I cannot stress the impact of this program enough — that a person’s life can change from such a little surgery, it cannot be overstated. That is in fact why we chose to work on reversible blindness when we started here in 2003. We felt like this was the area that it made the biggest difference, which is why we even call it “seeing is believing”, because it seems unbelievable without seeing for yourself how much it can affect someone’s life.”
Kazi Golam Rasul, Director and Head of Health, Friendship concurs, “there’s no pain or discomfort, so they ignore it, thinking that it would cost a lot of be too painful. They have no idea that they can, as we are doing here, get that surgery for free. Someone who cannot see becomes a burden for the rest of the family; but right after this surgery, they can return their former productive lives.”
Rasul offers some of the statistics collected during the camp from surveys, which also shed light on the situation. 80% of the respondents, he states, said that if it were not for Friendship, they would have had no options, and nowhere to go. The other 20% said that they would have had to make the trip to one of the larger towns but could not guess how much the surgery would’ve cost them, with estimates between 2,000–12,000 taka. The mean average age of the patients is 59, 50% male, 50% female, and have been suffering from blindness for 4 years. By the time the ships cycle back around between Chalna, Mongla, Kuakata, Hatiya and Kutubdia it takes 8–9 months, and there are always new patients when the ship returns. Almost every single patient heard of floating hospitals from the Friendship Community Medicaides (FCMs) who are part of the Friendship’s proprietary, innovative and unique multi-tiered healthcare system.