Keeping it in sight: Eye doctor, family travel to Ethiopia to help others

By Amanda Gabeletto

Dr. Stewart Van Horn went to Ethiopia on his first trip to a developing country to teach doctors how to perform a cataract surgery.

An ophthalmologist with Laurel Eye Clinic, which has an office and surgery center in Duncansville, he returned with new insight of his own.

“For me, it was really an eye-opening experience, because even though I’ve heard that Africa is poor and the people certainly don’t have the lifestyle that we have, I don’t think anything can really prepare one for it until you actually see it,” he said.

Van Horn of Loretto and his wife, Dr. Sarah Schroeder, an Altoona OBGYN, and their children – Kate, 16, and Nora, 12, went on the trip.

The couple also have three other children, Max, 14; Dane, 9; and Maeve, 6.

A member of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons, Van Horn went as part of the society and part of the Himalayan Cataract Project, an organization working to eradicate preventable and cureable blindness, according to its website at

“They’re just starting to work together, and I understand that I’m the first ASCRS surgeon who worked with the Himalayan Cataract Project,” he said.

After a 15-hour flight, Van Horn and his family touched down in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. The next day, they traveled to the northern part of the country, to a town called Gondar, with a population of about 200,000 people, he said.

Van Horn trained doctors for about 10 days on performing phacoemulsification – one of two ways to perform cataract surgery, and the more expensive method most often used in the developed world – at the University of Gondar hospital. He performed about 15 to 20 surgeries himself while doctors watched as part of the learning process.

They then went to the Robert Sinskey Eye Institute in Addis Ababa for several days on behalf of ASCRS, he said, where they treated adult patients.

The doctors there had some experience with the surgery, he said.

Van Horn had heard Ethiopia has about 40 eye surgeons for its population of about 85 million people. Comparatively, Altoona and surrounding areas alone have about 15 surgeons who come to the area, he said.

Not much government money in Ethiopia is directed toward cataracts, but goes instead to the infectious diseases of HIV and tuberculosis, information he heard second-hand.

The doctors seemed grateful for the instruction because many do not have the money to come to the United States to learn unless an organization sponsors them.

“It’s tough to learn something,” he said, noting that while he had a support group among others learning alongside him during his residency, these doctors really don’t have that.

“But they seemed very, very grateful for somebody who is coming over there to actually show them how to use the stuff and to get them up and running.”

Van Horn felt good about helping and hopes to go again. What prompted his decision to go in the first place was his desire to do mission work.

Van Horn got to experience first-hand what the doctors there are up against with unsanitary and unpredictable working conditions.

He said the power would often go off in the operating room, and at one point, he noticed a diesel generator brought out in the patient waiting room for the failing power caused a haze of fumes.

People live in mud huts and corrugated metal shanties, he said.

Schroeder ended up helping in the university hospital’s OBGYN clinic, instructing the doctors on a couple of donated machines that no one had taught them how to use.

Van Horn also wanted his children to gain perspective on “what goes on in the world.”

Kate, an 11th-grade student at Shadyside Academy, Pittsburgh, set up a computer donated to the University of Gondar from the Himalayan Cataract Project. Goats, donkeys and cows freely roamed the streets in Gondar, she said.

The experience “really made me think about what I have here and made me appreciate what it’s like here,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.