In Malawi, one of A Million Miracles


Sightsavers Event

Honorary President of Sightsavers’ U.S.-based Board of Directors Adrian Poffley, center, speaking before gathered attendees at the Helen Mills event space in Chelsea. Photo: M. Chadwick Shank.

Winesi March, a 69-year-old farmer in Malawi who has been visually impaired for more than 12 years and completely blind for the past two due to advanced-stage cataracts, lay on the operating table as the surgical team prepped him for a procedure that was being broadcast halfway around the globe.

Sightsavers International, a nonprofit charitable organization that seeks to reduce avoidable blindness and increase access to eye care in developing countries, broadcast the surgery at an event on Oct. 9 in Chelsea. The 25 attendees, who included private donors and partner organization members, were celebrating the official launch of Sightsavers’ A Million Miracles campaign, which aims to provide eye care services to one million blind people around the world in three years.

“Winesi March’s surgery is but the first of one million planned surgeries,” said Dr. Imran Khan, an optometrist who serves as the program development advisor for Sightsavers.

On the broadcast, Malawi-based surgeon Gerald Msukwa applied a local anesthetic to March’s eyes and made a four to five millimeter incision on each eye’s lens before removing the hardened cataracts, a procedure that took less than ten minutes. Msukwa is an ophthalmologist at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, the largest referral hospital managed by Malawi’s Ministry of Health. He is one of six practicing ophthalmologists in Malawi, a country of over 12 million.

March has a wife, Namaleta, and 13 children. Their village, where he works as a farmer, is in a remote location on the Zambian border, which limits his employment choices. As March prepared for his surgery, he said, in translation, that “[his] worry is that once the maize I have runs out I will no longer be able to support my family.” Khan said he hoped that restoring March’s vision would give him a better chance at finding work as well as acceptance by his community.

Sightsavers Development Manager Molly Morrison said the A Million Miracles campaign is the most ambitious undertaking by the organization so far. Each surgery costs an estimated $50, so the organization needs to raise $50 million to reach its goal. According to the organization’s financial records, it spent $301 million on its charitable activities last year, including almost 300,000 general eye operations. Its new campaign would be a significant ramp-up to those efforts.

The World Health Organization estimates that  285 million people are visually impaired worldwide and 39 million people are blind. Ninety percent of those who are visually impaired live in developing countries. Cataracts, the clouding of the eye’s natural lens, often caused by exposure to sunlight and poor nutrition, is the leading cause of blindness; in Malawi, more than 50 percent of blindness stems from cataracts and is treatable. Some of Sightsavers’ strategies, which the organization has already started, involve training primary eye care workers in Africa and equipping local hospitals with modern medical and surgical equipment. “Sightsavers seeks to build healthcare infrastructure that is self-sustaining,” said Morrison.

Sightsavers’ Honorary Board of Directors President Adrian Poffley, chief administrative officer at the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Network, said that Sightsavers has partnered with other nonprofit charitable organizations like Helen Keller International, the World Health Organization, and biopharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Merck & Co. to help support its work. Before performing the surgery, Dr. Msukwa said, “the only way to combat blindness is through partnerships.” Morrison agreed: “The eye sector for development is very collaborative.”

Attendees at the event stood and cheerfully applauded as Msukwa removed March’s bandages in a live broadcast at the event. Taking in the sight of Namaleta and his 18-month-old grandson, Lucas, produced heartfelt laughter from March, who then engaged in celebratory dancing and singing with his family.