“Master, let me see again...”


A wise old man's face with glasses

When I was working in the Amazon in South America, we had a lot of people come in to us with eye problems. Many of them just had simple things like short- or long-sightedness and we could help them with eyeglasses. Doubtless for good genetic reasons, there was one particular Amerindian tribe – the Wapisana – who had a very high prevalence of presbyopia – long-sightedness in old age. And that meant that in that whole tribe, almost no-one over the age of thirty could see within hand-distance. And that meant that they could do no useful work.

Imagine if you could do your job if you couldn’t see within hand distance, to read, to write or to manipulate tools. But it was very easy to fix. All you had to do was go in with a good range of glasses of different strengths, do a very simple eye test and give them the spectacles that would suit them the best. In an afternoon you could see forty people and a whole village would be able to see again. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever done.

And, just occasionally, we had what we called a “Bartimaeus moment”, when you would just put on someone exactly the right pair of glasses and suddenly he would go “I can see!” “I can see!” And he would see clearly for the first time, often in many years.

The best one of all we ever had was a very old man we had who came in with his equally elderly wife leading him by the hand. He had been completely blind for forty years.
I gave him a pair of glasses.
He put them on and suddenly shouted, “I can see!”, “I can see!” He looked all around him, rejoicing in his new sight.
Then he looked at his wife and went “Ugh!!”

I know there is treasure for me in heaven - I did not laugh until they were both out of the room!

But some people needed more than just eyeglasses. They had more serious eye problems. So we once had a visit from some eye surgeons who were doing cataract operations. They did great work, but the problem was that they didn’t have enough equipment to go round. They only had equipment for 20 patients and we had about 50 people who needed the operation. So we had to decide who was going to get it and who was going to miss out. To try to make it as fair as possible, we saw all 50 of the patients on one day in a special clinic to decide who would benefit the most from the operation. And the last of all of them to be seen was a man they called ‘Uncle Miguel’ - an old man in his 80’s - by far the oldest of all the patients. And he had other medical problems as well.
Now, we had already decided that we wanted to treat the younger patients and those who didn’t have other medical problems, because we thought that they were the people who were probably going to live the longest with their new lenses and would therefore benefit the most.

So, I had to say to him: “Look, I’m very sorry but I really don’t think it’s going to be possible for us to do this for you. We can’t do it for everybody and some people have to be disappointed. I’m very sorry, but it looks like you’re going to be one of them.”
I’d already had to tell that to nearly thirty people that day - and it really wasn’t getting any easier.

His face fell, like all the other people I had disappointed that day. But he didn’t cry..., or shout..., or beg. He just talked. He was 83; his only son was paralysed. His daughter-in-law had to look after them both, as well as five children and scratch a living for all eight of them from a tiny farm cut miles away in the bush. He needed to be able to see, in order to work, in order to help support the family. If he could not work, it would be better for the family if he died. There would be one less mouth to feed.

Well, to begin with, if I’m really honest with you, I did not believe him. Every day, I hear so many hard luck stories that sometimes I fear my heart gets a little hardened. So many of them are so plausible and so well told that I have been fooled many times. So I checked out his story and it was true in every detail.

I went back to the team and we talked about it. To break the rules for a man who was old and sick meant taking the chance away from someone else who was young and fit and maybe also had a family to support. Could we really do that? The team – bless them! - left the decision to me because I had been there the longest and I knew the people the best. I have to say it was the hardest decision I have ever had to take in medicine. But, come the day of the operation, Uncle Miguel was first on the list.

It was a difficult decision, but I never regretted it. I remember, we did the operation on a Wednesday. We took the bandages off on the Saturday and sent all the patients home. I saw him at Mass on the Sunday. Then on the Monday, I went round to see him. He wasn’t at home. He had gone out to the farm for the first time in fifteen years.

But what really touched me was what his neighbour said. She asked if we had only operated on his eyes because when she had seen him setting out that morning to walk the 5 miles to his farm, he had looked at least 6 inches taller.

And every time after that I saw him out on the road, I gave thanks to God. Not for making Uncle Miguel see again. That was just an operation. But for making ME see again God’s way in the World.

God does not give up on an 83 year old blind man.
God does not give up on anyone.
So now, when I feel a little old, a little weary, a little worn–down by life, I think of Uncle Miguel and I remind myself that in this world – in God’s World - it’s not about how much or how little you have; it is about what you do with what you have. And, more than anything, Who you do it for!

Paul O'Reilly SJ