Bolivia’s miracle of sight

Wednesday October 22nd 2008

Operation Miracle is a Cuban health programme that provides free eyecare to low-income patients around the world. The brainchild of Fidel Castro, it began in 2004 as a cooperative initiative with Venezuela and has since expanded to 33 countries. In Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, thousands of patients every year have their sight returned to them by Cuban doctors. Yanet Valdez Morales is one of them, a Cuban ophthalmologist whose life's mission is to bring light to the poor

I was born in Cuba, in Villaclara, where I studied medicine and got my degree in 2004. Since then, I have been dedicated to my chosen profession. My family was always involved in medicine one way or other and I have felt passionately about it since I was a child. All of this has been my engine.

Right after my graduation I had the opportunity, the privilege, of going to Guatemala as a volunteer, as after a hurricane the country was in a state of emergency. Our country was sending doctors to help. Upon my return to Cuba, I was chosen for another "international mission", and this time it was Bolivia.

I’ve been here since February 2006. The project was initially part of an emergency plan to help South America’s poorest country, but because of its nature and success it has become permanent. It’s called Operation Miracle and is aimed at helping poor people with preventable and curable blindness.

At first, patients were sent to Cuba if they needed eye surgery. But soon we started to set up ophthalmology centres in the countries we were treating, such as Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela and of course Bolivia, which is one of the countries that has benefited the most. There are Cuban doctors all over the Americas – and farther away as well.

In Bolivia, Operation Miracle is everywhere and we give medical attention for free, from the first consultation to giving out spectacles, to surgery and medicines. The idea is to fully incorporate the blind and almost-blind back into society. We want to give our patients the chance to see the world through their own eyes – to give them the miracle of light. Since 2006 we have treated more than 280,000 patients in Bolivia, which is significant work.

We are going to be here as long as the Bolivian people need us. I like it here. The humility of our patients is difficult to describe – it’s a desire to get better in a very humble and simple way, and I can relate to that. It gives me the strength and incentive to keep going. Where I work, in the medical facility, we perform surgery on an average of 30 patients a day.

I am committed to my cause. It’s considered a "revolutionary" cause, as this has always been a principle of the Cuban people – this solidarity and international aid. We are part of a process that brings healing and hope to some of the world’s poorest people. And I feel the rewards deeply when I see the patient’s gratitude. To see people come into our care, alone in the darkness, and to give them back their sight – that is the greatest satisfaction for a doctor like me. And that is what we receive from every single patient.

Programmes of this kind are all based on a doctor’s willingness. I’ve always been willing not only to help but to experience other parts of the world. If there was a typhoon in the Pacific now, I’d be willing to go. Projects like these don’t just bring people health; they bring humanity. It’s that simple and basic. But I think it’s a lot.

• Yanet Valdez Morales was talking to Andrés Schipani in La Paz.

Republished from Guardian Weekly

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