Stanford student is visionary behind global fight againts blindness

Six years ago, as a 19-year-old college sophomore, Jennifer Staple decided to battle preventable blindness so she started the nonprofit "Unite for Sight" with a staff of one: herself.

What began with the recruitment of a few fellow Yale University students to join her crusade against blindness among the homeless of New Haven, Conn., has since burgeoned into the recruitment of volunteers worldwide who have helped restore sight to thousands of impoverished blind people.

"I never anticipated it would actually go beyond homeless people in New Haven," said Staple, who is herself a bit overwhelmed by Unite for Sight's success.

From her dorm room on the Stanford University campus where she's now a second-year medical student, Staple coordinates some 4,000 volunteers. Unite for Sight now has 90 chapters in 25 countries. It provides services to 400,000 low-income patients, and has sponsored more than 6,000 sight-restoring surgeries, a number that grows weekly.

On April 14-15, the nonprofit's fourth annual conference will bring 1,500 people interested in global health-care issues to Stanford to hear 300 experts discuss subjects that range from individual eye care to organizing nonprofits to the fight against malaria and AIDS.

"They say, 'Life is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things,'" said Tamilarasan Senthil, MD, an ophthalmologist who directs Unite for Sight in India. "Jennifer is one among them."

Staple, a quiet warrior, volunteers 40 hours a week for Unite for Sight, responding to about 100 daily e-mails in between her medical school studies. She postponed medical school, asking to defer her acceptance to Stanford for two years, to get Unite for Sight up on its feet and rolling.

"Her dedication to and stewardship of Unite for Sight were exactly the skills and attitudes we wished to see in our future medical students and physicians," said Gabriel Garcia, MD, associate dean of admissions at the Stanford School of Medicine. "We were delighted to grant her request for deferment."

And Staple's enthusiasm for the program shows no signs of waning.

"I love every day of it," she said. "I love hearing the stories from the international ophthalmologists, hearing reports from all the volunteers in the field who are so excited about their jobs." And, most of all, hearing the stories of the people whose sight is restored.

James Clarke, MD, one of Unite for Sight's ophthalmologist partners in Ghana, Africa, talks of his patients "dancing with excitement, tears streaming down their faces," after their sight-restoring surgeries.

"Unite for Sight came to Ghana, Africa, at the right time to bring hope to the hopeless," Clarke wrote in an e-mail from Ghana. "It is a savior of the blind."

The idea behind the organization was originally sparked while Staple was working a summer job after her freshman year at Yale in the office of her childhood ophthalmologist. She grew up in New Haven.

"I'd see low-income patients suffering from glaucoma who had already become blind," Staple said. "They regretted not going to the eye doctor sooner. I saw firsthand the importance of educating people."

In the early days, Staple and her small troop of about 35 volunteers went out into the community, visiting soup kitchens and public libraries in New Haven armed with eye charts and educational materials. The majority of eye damage can be prevented with a little education and some fairly low-cost care, Staple said. Amazingly, 80 percent of blindness is preventable or treatable, according to research sponsored by the World Health Organization.

The volunteers would match up poor patients with free health-care programs primarily through the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Optometric Association, which Staple discovered through Internet searches. After awhile, people in other parts of the world started reaching out to Unite for Sight through Internet connections asking for help.

"We were connected electronically through thousands of e-mails before I actually met Jennifer at the Unite for Sight conference at Yale in April 2006," said Senthil, who runs Unite for Sight's partner eye clinic in Chennai, India. "I think we form a great team to help eradicate blindness from the world."

Staple made her first visit to one of the overseas clinics last summer. She visited patients in remote villages surrounding Chennai where Unite for Sight has been working for two years. In Chennai, the organization partners with the local Uma Eye Clinic, providing funds for impoverished patients to have sight-restoring surgeries so that no patient remains blind because of a lack of money. It also sends international volunteers who serve as support staff. The volunteers along with the eye clinic's optometrists and ophthalmologists jointly provide eye care in the rural villages. Those requiring surgery are brought to the eye clinic in town. Similar programs now exist throughout India.

"It's incredible to meet some of these patients," Staple said. She saw villagers whose five- to 10-minute cataract surgeries changed their lives.

"They get off the operating table and they can see again," Staple said. "I saw one patient who was so happy, she had tears. I saw so many big grins, villagers putting their hands together as in prayer. They're so happy to see their villages and families for the first time in years."

So many poor patients in rural areas are unaware that their blindness may be curable or preventable, Staple said. And even those who are aware of eye care services will often not pursue treatment because of fear or expense. Unite for Sight's mission is to help change that.

Since its early days, the organization's mission has expanded to include targeting more than 36 million people with undiagnosed and untreated cases of preventable blindness, including those suffering eye damage as a result of atrocities committed against them.

Staple has no intention of slowing down her work with Unite for Sight as she winds her way through the rigors of medical school. She does have plans of someday becoming an ophthalmologist herself.

"Seeing people with such joy on their faces after they have their eyesight restored, there's nothing like it," Staple said.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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