Wednesday, Oct 23

Tacloban eye patients get free surgery in Manila

December 08, 2015 | Jamaica Digo

Dr. Emil Say explains to Ma. Leonora Casaldan the result of her husband, Leopoldo's operation. Dr. Say managed to successfully remove the cataract on Leopoldo's left eye but due to bleeding inside his eye, the doctor had to delay putting in an artificial lens until the bleeding stopped. A second operation will then have to be scheduled for Leopoldo. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

Story Highlights

  • Tzu Chi Foundation sponsored the operations of two patients from Tacloban City who are suffering from traumatic cataract and retinal detachment on December 7. The surgeries were done at the University of Sto. Tomas Hospital Eye Institute in Manila.

  • Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) member Dr. Emil Anthony Say, who came all the way from Pennsylvania, USA, performed the operation on the patients.


Fourteen years of marriage had brought couple Leopoldo and Ma. Leonora Casaldan through highs and lows yet they remained firm on their wedding vows to this day. In fact, on December 7, the couple celebrates their wedding anniversary as they get past yet another test of their married life.

On the said date, 44-year-old Leopoldo undergoes a surgery to remove the cataract on his left eye, which he sustained in the aftermath of typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013.

Leopoldo and his family are residents of Upper Nula Tula in Tacloban City. A day after the super typhoon made landfall in Tacloban, the family was among those fleeing for the mountains in fear of the rumours that a tsunami will hit their city.

As they were climbing a mountain, a fellow evacuee held on to a bamboo plant. When he released it, the bamboo snapped back and hit Leopoldo’s left eye. The impact left Leopoldo almost unconscious.

Eventually, the incident took its toll on Leopoldo’s vision. Images became distorted. But with one eye still useful, Leopoldo carried on working to support his family.

But a year later, as Leopoldo was rebuilding the kitchen of his daughter’s house one day after typhoon Ruby (Hagupit) hit the Visayas Region, the nail he was hammering flew out of his grip and hit his right eye. The bleeding was beyond control that he was rushed to the hospital for an operation. The wound was surgically closed but Leopoldo’s vision has been significantly affected.

With both eyes unable to see clearly, Leopoldo was compelled to quit his work at the construction, leaving Ma. Leonora to become the family’s breadwinner.

To support their needs, Ma. Leonora started offering manicure and pedicure services to their neighbors for Php100. With a little help from Leopoldo, she also cooks rice cakes and various snacks to sell. From this, they earn Php120 a day.

Although their combined efforts still earns them less than Leopoldo’s Php350 daily income before his accidents, the couple gets by, fuelled by their faith and their love for their children.

“We’re just helping and supporting each other. We work hard to provide for our children’s needs and striving not to be a burden to other families,” says 45-year-old Ma.  Leonora.

The couple has three children, with the youngest being the only one studying now.

When Tzu Chi Foundation screened eye patients for free cataract and pterygium surgeries days before its large-scale medical mission in October, the Casaldan couple came to have Leopoldo’s eyes checked. However, the volunteer doctors said that Leopoldo’s case is unlike the usual cataract; hence, he cannot be operated given the limited equipment that was available on the mission.

Nonetheless, Tzu Chi Foundation wished to help Leopoldo so he was advised to go to Manila for a surgery.

On December 5, the couple arrived in Manila aboard a public utility bus from Tacloban City after travelling for 24 hours. Tzu Chi volunteers collected them at the bus terminal and brought them for a consultation at the Cardinal Santos Medical Center.

Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) member and US-based Dr. Emil Say checked on the condition of Leopoldo. Dr. Emil advised to have the left eye operated first as it has a better prognosis.

“The trauma only caused damage to the lens; his cornea and retina looks healthy. What we will do is remove the lens, put in an artificial lens, and hopefully he could get some vision back,” he says.

The right eye, on the other hand, will need a more complicated surgery as it affects both his cornea and lens. Dr. Emil suggests a corneal transplant with an artificial lens; but it might take a long time since they will have to wait for a corneal donor.

In the meantime, the doctor will proceed with the operation on Leopoldo’s left eye.

Leopoldo cannot hide his excitement a day before the surgery.

“I really want to have my eyes operated so that I can go back to working and help my family, especially my daughter who goes to school,” says Leopoldo. “That’s why I am so thankful to Tzu Chi Foundation that they are helping me to have my eyes operated for free.”

Leopoldo’s surgery on December 7 lasts for one and a half hour.

After Leopoldo is wheeled out of the operating room, his wife won’t leave his side.

“I am very happy that my husband was operated and it’s even special that it happened on the day of our wedding anniversary,” says Ma. Leonora. “I am so happy that there’s Tzu Chi that helped us so he can see again and so we can both work for our family.”

“My vision has now improved a lot,” Leopoldo happily says. “Now I can see intact letters and shapes. To have my vision back is so important to me so I can help my family.”


Serving from across the globe

Also operated on December 7 is Elena Abrenzosa, a 67-year-old resident of Barangay Caibaan in Tacloban City.

Elena underwent a cataract removal surgery in 2014 but her eyes remained blurry. Her follow up checkups with her ophthalmologist revealed that she has a detached retina.

After her costly cataract surgery, Elena’s children couldn’t possibly afford the cost of another major operation. Hence, to have Tzu Chi Foundation sponsor her surgery is an enormous blessing.

“I feel that my vision is not complete. Although my left eye can see, I would like it if both of them can see clearly,” says Elena. “That’s why I really saved up all the money I have so I can come here in Manila for this operation.”

Elena has a small sari-sari (variety) store in her daughter’s house in Tacloban, where she currently lives.

It took Dr. Emil nearly three hours inside the operating room trying to flatten Elena’s retina, which, he says, is totally detached and scarred. By the end of the operation, he put in silicon oil on Elena’s eye, hoping it would help roll the retina flat and improve her vision.

“It feels like something that was blocking my sight was taken out of my eye and I can see better now,” says Elena. “I am very grateful to the doctor. I don’t even know him, but I thank him so much because he did everything that he could to help me.”

On his part, seeing how much he had brought hope and light in his patients’ life makes up for the long miles he travelled to get here.

A consultant at a hospital in Pennsylvania, USA, Dr. Emil would annually come home to the Philippines to be of service to his less-fortunate fellowmen through Tzu Chi Foundation.

“In the United States, most people have insurance and they have ways to get you insurance. But here, in the Philippines, if you don’t work, you won’t have PhilHealth. So these patients are lucky that they have Tzu Chi Foundation that is ready to help in any way. I am also lucky to have a window for helping the needy,” says Dr. Emil.

  • While waiting for their turns at the operating room, a Tzu Chi volunteer talks with Leopoldo Casaldan (right) and Elena Abrenzosa (center). Leopoldo and Elena are both natives of Tacloban City. They came to Manila for their eye surgeries on December 7, which will be sponsored by Tzu Chi Foundation. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • A nurse checks on the blood pressure of Leopoldo Casaldan before his operation. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • Dr. Emil Say performs the surgery on Leopoldo Casaldan. The surgery lasts for 1 and a half hour. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • After her husband’s one hour and 30-minute operation, Ma. Leonora Casaldan did not leave his side. Her husband, Leopoldo, sustained cataracts on both eyes in the aftermath of typhoons Yolanda (Haiyan) and Ruby (Hagupit). 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • Dr. Emil Say, an ophthalmologist based in the USA and a member of Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), checks on the right eye of Elena Abrenzosa. Dr. Say is in the country for a month-long vacation, but instead of resting, he uses his time to perform free eye surgeries for indigent patients. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • Elena Abrenzosa gets her right eye checked by Dr. Emil Say. Elena underwent a cataract removal surgery in Tacloban in 2014 yet her vision remains blurry. Her follow up checkups with her ophthalmologist revealed that her retina is detached. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • Dr. Emil Say thoroughly checks upon the right eye of Elena Abrenzosa. After the checkup, Dr. Say tells Elena that there is only a small chance that her vision will come back after the operation since her retina is "totally detached and scarred." Still, Dr. Say assures Elena that he will do the best he can to help her. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • To ensure that she is fit to undergo an operation, a nurse gets Elena Abrenzosa’s blood pressure minutes before the surgery. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • A Tzu Chi volunteer helps Elena Abrenzosa into her operating gown moments before the latter's eye operation. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • A day after her operation, Elena Abrenzosa comes back to Dr. Emil Say's clinic for a follow up checkup. Although the operation did not restored her vision completely, Elena is relieved that she could see better now. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】

  • Dr. Emil Say poses for a photo with his patients, Leopoldo Casaldan and Elena Abrenzosa and their respective family members. The said patients were discovered by Tzu Chi Foundation during the recent medical mission in Tacloban City. They were brought to Manila for their surgeries. 【Photo by Jamaica Digo】