The Eyes Have It

A villager being given a visual acuity test conducted by volunteers. Villagers often arrive on foot and wait for hours just to get their eyes checked, showing the need for basic eye care in these communities.

Singapore-based non-governmental organisation Sight to Sky hopes to improve the vision and health of people living in high-altitude communities in the Himalayas through mobile health clinics and sharing knowledge about preventive healthcare.

BY SASHA GONZALES
PHOTOS SIGHT TO SKY
 

S

ight to Sky is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) co-founded in 2015 by Singaporeans Elizabeth Tan and Woon Fei Xiang, and Hong Kong-based filmmaker and journalist Edwin Lee. The NGO helps remote Himalayan communities like Ladakh access primary healthcare, especially eye care. It does so through organising annual mobile health clinics and educating them on preventive healthcare.

Tan is managing director of a Singapore-based shoe retailer, while Woon is marketing director of a software company in Singapore. The three co-founders met on a charity fundraising climb to Mount Apo in the Philippines in 2012. Says Tan: “What brought us together was the desire to make a positive difference to the local communities. We also shared the same values and vision.”

The impetus for setting up the NGO came from Tan’s volunteer trip to Ladakh, a mountainous region in the Indian Himalayas, in 2009. She stayed for a month in a village in the Zanskar valley where she taught English to children in a monastic school. She says: “I discovered that one of my brightest students had to quit school to look after her family because her young father was blind from cataracts and her mother had to work.”

Woon Fei Xiang, one of Sight to Skyʼs co-founders, with local children wearing new sunglasses distributed by the NGO.

Tan also found out that more than 70 per cent of Ladakh’s population, from young to old, suffer from a range of vision problems, including cataracts, vision impairment and even blindness. They are caused by long-term exposure to strong levels of ultraviolet (UV) light, owing to Ladakh’s high altitude. These problems, Tan says, are exacerbated by limited access to eye care in remote villages as well as a lack of knowledge among locals about preventive measures.

Tan decided to set up a mobile eye clinic, which would travel to different villages in Ladakh to screen villagers for eye problems, assess the seriousness of their condition, and refer more serious cases for follow-up. The clinic would also give out glasses and sunglasses donated by well-wishers, as well as dispense eye care knowledge.

PROMOTING PREVENTIVE HEALTHCARE

In 2013, Woon joined Tan on the second mobile eye clinic, and Lee volunteered on the next mission in 2014. The experience made them realise there was a lack of resources dedicated to preventive healthcare, including health education.

So, in 2015, they established Sight to Sky as an independent NGO to provide lowcost, high-impact primary healthcare to the Himalayan communities through their mobile health clinic model. Tan says: “We recognised that there are many others who need medical help. Most of the time, the villagers’ health problems can be prevented with health education or early detection.”

The villagers are happy with the work Sight to Sky has done. Tsering Punchok, 70, says that he is thankful to all the doctors and volunteers who have travelled great distances to reach the villagers in a remote area of Ladakh in order to provide health check-ups and glasses.

Another villager, Sonam Lhazes, 30, says: “The villagers here are mostly farmers and cannot afford to go to the capital, Leh, to see doctors. I’m happy that a health camp is here, especially as it’s difficult for us to access quality healthcare.”

Another person who has directly benefitted from Sight to Sky’s outreach is Tenzin Urgain, 57, a nomadic farmer. A patient from the NGO’s 2013 mission, Urgain underwent a cataract operation on his right eye sponsored by Sight to Sky in 2014. He has since regained his sight.

“ The mental and emotional satisfaction of going to these beautiful places and connecting with the villagers can have a long-lasting effect. Many feel humbled after their trip and return home feeling accomplished. They also learn a lot from the locals who may not have much but are emotionally and spiritually happy. ”


Elizabeth Tan, co-founder of Sight to Sky

 

Sight to Sky’s annual mobile health clinic has also expanded its scope to provide dental care. Its medical volunteers include optometrists and ophthalmologists, as well as doctors from other fields including general medicine, dentistry and gynaecology. Its non-medical volunteers, consisting mainly of young to middle-aged professionals looking for meaningful adventures, help with tasks such as record-keeping and carrying out preliminary visual acuity tests.

Tan says that for many Singaporean volunteers, the experience of travelling to, and helping these remote communities, has been life changing. “The mental and emotional satisfaction of going to these beautiful places and connecting with the villagers can have a long-lasting effect,” says Tan. “Many feel humbled after their trip and return home feeling accomplished. They also learn a lot from the locals who may not have much but are emotionally and spiritually happy.”

Elizabeth Tan with a villager; volunteers examining a villager with the help of an interpreter.

A significant portion of Sight to Sky’s work is dedicated to preventative action through health education, in which its volunteers teach the locals how to take care of their own health, such as wearing proper eye protection for certain activities such as chopping firewood. It also distributes sunglasses and caps to help them prevent long-term eye damage from the sun.

“Education is an important aspect of our clinics,” says Tan. “In these high-altitude communities, going blind at middle age is regarded as normal simply because people don’t know how UV rays can damage their eyes. We hope that by teaching adults and children the importance of protecting their eyes from the sun, we can help them identify problems before they worsen. We also hope to prolong their vision. It is only with good eyesight that children can continue their education and adults can continue working.”


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