Mike Safley By Mike Safley | June 16, 2010

Mission Impossible

By Mike Safley and Ursula Munro
I received a phone call from the director of Quechua Benefit, Mr. Mike Safley, at 3:00 AM this morning to tell me that he had just been advised by Peru that there is some problem with the license the charity has been granted for the importation of donated medicines;…

 We are being told that WITH immediate approval, we could still leave for Peru on Saturday morning as planned—but without it, at this terribly late stage, we will have to cancel everything. In short, the opportunity to help these people will be lost.

—Email from Dr Stuart Randell, InSight Peru trip leader,
to the Peruvian Ambassador to Australia, Claudio de la Puente
Friday morning at 4:00 AM


Peru is a difficult country for foreigners—AKA gringos—to work in and understand. The phone call to Stuart Randell was the toughest one we ever made. Quechua Benefit’s board had put their heart and soul into the InSight Peru Cataract Surgery Mission. Looking failure in the face left us feeling sick to heart.

A cataract is a clouding of the natural lens inside the eye. Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss in older adults.   The treatment is surgical – the damaged lens is removed and replaced with an artificial one; in this case one imported from India. Millions of Americans have their sight restored each year with this relatively simple outpatient procedure. The Quechua people of the Peruvian Highlands are more prone to cataracts than most people due to the increased exposure of ultra-violet light at high altitudes. For them, this “quick fix” is not just unavailable it is unimaginable.

The mission was conceived by Ian Davison, president of the Australian Alpaca Association (AAA), after reading a Quechua Benefit Newsletter that described the March 2009 Amigo’s Optometry Mission where more than 100 cataract patients were diagnosed during a five-day clinic. Ian wrote to Quechua Benefit saying that he could assemble a cataract surgery team for a mission to Peru. He asked, “Are you interested in helping?” We responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” and quickly set to work gathering all of the resources we would need for a successful mission. There were ups and downs over the next six months, but we believed it could be done: a three continent joint venture to give the blind sight. And here we were on the brink of failure, one day before the teams scheduled departure from Australia.

Organizing missions is a complex endeavor. There are permits to obtain from the Peruvian Ministry of Health, accommodations to arrange, medicine to pass through customs, transportation logistics, local doctors to partner with, and local patients to identify and diagnose. Many skills are required to organize a successful mission—and also a good dose of that illusive commodity—LUCK. Up to and until those final hours prior to departure, Quechua Benefits’ track record had been almost perfect. But now it looked as if we had simply run out of good fortune.

The Quechua Benefit board resorted to the age-old comfort of prayer. Almost immediately we received a phone call from Sandra Carbajal, our executive secretary in Arequipa. It was 6:00 AM in Australia and much later in Peru. ”Something is moving here,” she said. “I just got a call from the head of the agency who denied our permit. The attitude seems different.” We had hope.

Mike Safley called Stuart Randell. He had given up on his night’s sleep and was at the computer broadcasting emails for help when he reached him. Three hours earlier he had emailed the Peruvian ambassador. The reply came in as they were discussing our alternatives:

Dear Stuart,

I am terribly sorry for all these inconveniences. I just called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in this very moment they are working on the issue…, They are working right now to solve all the remaining issues. I have been told that everything will be okay. In three or four hours, meaning 8:00 AM today, I will receive an official update. Moreover, one delegate from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will meet the delegation at its arrival in Lima to make sure that there will be no problem with the medicines and customs. Please confirm ASAP the itinerary (arrival flight number, day and time, to Lima)…,

—Claudio de la Puente
Peruvian Ambassador to Australia


Mission accomplished. Our prayers were answered, and the surgeries performed as a result would set anyone’s heart on fire. A seventy-five-year-old man came back to the clinic the day after the surgery to have his bandage removed. He was guided and supported by his whole family. When his eye was clear of the bandage he looked around and said, “This the first time I have seen my grandchildren in eight years.” Another man, who was approaching eighty years, was brought to the clinic by his daughter and son-in-law. He walked with a cane, tapping his way as he shuffled in the door. When the bandage came off, a small, shy smile lit up his face. As he turned to leave, his daughter moved to take his arm, but he shrugged her off, handed over his cane and walked out of the clinic unaided. Another patient, a woman named Paullina, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and now she is receiving life-saving drugs. A little four-year-old boy, Richard Lima, arrived in the arms of his alpaca breeder father who had carried him on foot for three hours to a local clinic where they began a two-day car journey to the cataract clinic in Chivay. The boy was rendered blind in utero, a victim of TORCH infection. He is being enrolled in a school for the blind.

The Australians were the magnificent ten: Surgeons Dean Durkin and Chris Brown, anesthesiologist Warren Bruce, optometrist Craig Cameron and nurses Mary Laxton, Fiona Martin, Norka Brown, Leonie Daveson, Carmen Ryan and the mission organizer Dr. Ian Davison. To come halfway around the world bringing aid to people they had never met was an act of faith—one that we are planning to replicate next year. Ambassador de la Puente is the unsung hero of this tale. Without his intervention, all would have been lost. The need in the Altiplano is infinite, just as man’s capacity for good is limitless.

You can see images and video from this mission trip on our Facebook fan page by clicking this link.

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