Drs. Paul Imperia and Paul Jorizzo have visited Kiribati—also known as Christmas Island—a number of times over the past 15 years. They were initially drawn to the island as a fishing destination, but return visits have been largely inspired by their ongoing friendships with local residents. Warm and generous, quick to smile, and strongly bonded to their community, the Kiribati people are content to live their lives without the material preoccupations or technologies many of us in the West take for granted. As ophthalmologists, Drs. Imperia and Jorizzo often wondered how they could serve the people of Christmas Island. Through the generosity of Carleton Smith and Pacific Island Medical Aid (PIMA), and with the support of Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International, “Dr. Paul and Dr. Paul” were able to fulfill their desire of giving something back by organizing an expedition to improve vision on the island.
With PIMA’s support, many of the patients were transported by ship to Christmas Island from neighboring Fanning and Washington Islands. The surgical team included Dr. Imperia and Dr. Jorizzo, Medical Eye Center’s operating room manager Max Lentfer, and Andrew Lee, an aspiring ophthalmologist who will enroll in medical school next Fall.The team performed 35 procedures during their week-long surgical campaign. There were pterygium excisions and removal of eyelid tumors, but the majority of cases were cataract surgeries. “Most of our patients were profoundly blind from cataracts,” said Paul Imperia. “In some cases, they hadn’t been able to clearly see their loved ones for years. The sheer joy that family members expressed as they regained the gift of sight was truly inspirational. We are so happy to help our friends on Kiribati.”
Medical Eye Center’s team was joined by Dr. Rabebe Tekeraoi, who will become the first ophthalmologist in Kiribati when she completes her training at the Pacific Eye Institute in Fiji. Dr. Tekeraoi assisted in the campaign and learned advanced cataract surgical techniques from the Oregon doctors. The dedicated and skilled nurses at Christmas Island worked long hours, in complete harmony with the American team. Surgeries were performed in the renovated Kiritimati Health Center. The operating microscopes, surgical instruments and supplies were provided by SEE International.
In addition to surgical care, Medical Eye Center’s team provided diagnostic eye examinations to the local community. Many patients benefitted from glasses, some received medical treatments, and others—especially children—were evaluated for referral to the United States for specialized procedures not available on the island. The Kiribati Minister of Health and several associates came to Christmas Island while the American team was working. They were clearly impressed with their achievements. “Thanks to PIMA, Health care on Kiribati has dramatically improved,” said Dr. Jorizzo. “I am so happy to be a part of the international effort to cure blindness—especially on Christmas Island. Working with Paul Imperia and my friends from home is particularly special. We all look forward to returning soon.”