Editor's note: Deseret News staff writer Tad Walch, together with Church News Editor Sarah Weaver, is chronicling the South American ministry of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the impact the church is having in various countries. He reports today from Paraguay.
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — Through a state-of-the-art microscope, a surgeon gazed steadily Monday at a cloudy cataract blinding the eye of the impoverished woman on his operating table in this city of half a million people.
Cautiously, Dr. Miguel Scalamogna began to make skillful, tiny, meticulous incisions in her eye. One floor below a loud throng of impoverished Paraguayans filled the lobby and hallway of Fundación Visión. Many were working their way through the process of applying for a $7 eye exam they could not afford.
Others were somewhere on a journey from that exam to the quiet operating room upstairs and the microscope provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that plays a vital role in about half of all cataract surgeries in this nation of 6.9 million people.
"There's no room for error," said the church's prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, on Monday night as the retired world-renowned heart surgeon left a news conference following a devotional address he gave at the Conmebol Convention Center. "The doctor must be very precise."
Before the devotional, he fielded questions from a dozen Paraguayan young adults. Immediately afterward, he knelt when surrounded by young children in a way that touched Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Helping children was key to the message both received and delivered in Peru and remains a focus here:
“One other observation I’ve had on this trip is the connection the prophet has with children, the love the children have for him and that he has for them, said Elder Stevenson, who together with his wife is ministering with the church leader. "We were touched tonight as the meeting finished and the children gathered around him. It was for me reminiscent of the Savior and his love for the children.”
Back in the operating room, Scalamogna broke up the woman's cloudy lens, painstakingly removed the pieces from her eye and placed an artificial lens in its place behind her iris and pupil.
As he cauterized the incisions, wisps of smoke rose above the woman's face. To the surgeon's right, another doctor began the same procedure on an older man. He peered through a second Zeiss microscope, one of several "machines provided by the Mormons," Jorge Medina, a registered nurse, said in Spanish.
"Without them, we cannot perform this surgery," he said.
Outside, the building's cornerstone bore an inscription: "I was blind, now I see."
A leading partner
The church made its first donation to Fundación Visión in 2007 for $250,000. The charity's fundraising chief will never forget it.
"It was the biggest check I've ever had in my purse," Helmine Funk said.
And absolutely necessary for a group intent on performing demanding surgeries on the transparent structure of the eye lens, said Jason Penniecook, an opthamologist and the foundation's academic coordinator.
"If you want to be a healthcare provider, the barrier you have to cross that helps you help people is expensive equipment."
For a country with a desperate need for eye surgeries, the need included Zeiss microscopes, a machine to sterilize the surgical equipment and others for specialized exams.
"You need precise instruments," Penniecook said. "A surgeon has to take things four microns thick and move them 1 millimeter without having things break up. That requires very precise movements. The equipment must be very precise, and it's very expensive."
Cataracts are the main cause of blindness. With the right equipment, removing them and replacing them with an artificial lens is a simple outpatient procedure that lasts 15 to 45 minutes.
Its partnership with the church has allowed Fundación Visión to become the leading eye surgery provider in Paraguay.
The facility performs between half and 75 percent of all corneal transplants in Paraguay each year, Penniecook said, about half of all cataract surgeries and a significant percentage of retinal procedures. In all, its doctors perform 6,500 eye surgeries in a year.
Impact in Paraguay
The vision project isn't the only Latter-day Saint initiative in Paraguay.
LDS Charities has helped 167,781 people in Paraguay in a broad range of services since 1985. As of March 31, the church had 93,773 members in the country.
It seeks to work with strong Paraguayan partners.
For example, LDS Charities has provided wheelchairs to 5,800 Paraguayans since 2013 through an eight-year-old partnership with Fundación Solidaridad.
"If we didn't have the church's help, thousands of people would be without wheelchairs every year," said Oscar Corbo, wheelchair coordinator for the foundation, which distributes about two-thirds of all the wheelchairs in Paraguay.
Also, last year, under a partnership agreement with Paraguay’s Ministry of Health, LDS Charities provided newborn and infant care from 16 different facilities. Since 2004, the church has provided money to support maternal and newborn care training for 3,400 Paraguayan caregivers.
President Nelson said giving in Paraguay and elsewhere begins with church members.
"Let's give the credit where it belongs," he said. "When there's a cyclone, a hurricane or an earthquake — Wendy and I were here in 2007 when a big earthquake happened — what do the Saints do? They put money into the humanitarian fund. We never appeal for it. As the need goes up, the voluntary contributions follow the same curve, without our even asking. So the credit goes to the people, the members of the church who just feel this confidence that if they donate to the humanitarian fund, it will be sent right where it needs to go."
Elder Stevenson said the principle behind the church's aid in Paraguay is a divine appointment to care for the poor and needy, like Jorge Luis, Robles, 50, a grains analyst who suffered a hemorrhagic stroke while working on his green pepper farm three months ago. He receive a wheelchair Friday from the church through Fundación Solidaridad.
"It includes everyone, all of (Heavenly Father's) children," Elder Stevenson said. "So we have a very sophisticated organization to do that. There are humanitarian platforms that are very important. ... We do great good and the humanitarian offerings made by the members of the church around the world are directed in a very important way, a very organized way to see that we are indeed caring for the poor and needy around the world."
Robles is undergoing intense therapy in five sessions a day at the foundation to try to regain his speech and other abilities. But the family's money is running out and even with the foundation's grants, he is expected to have to leave by month's end. The wheelchair has made it possible for his wife to move him around the hospital and will be critical back home.
"Tell the church thank you so much for the wheelchair," Lualene Freitas de Robles said. "It means a lot. It's very expensive to buy and we don't have the money to buy it. We are very grateful for it."
Back at Fundación Visión, people began to arrive between 4 and 5 a.m. on Monday morning. The clinic sees between 300 and 400 people a day. It is determined to expand, with the church's help. It has made its request of the church for 2019 with expansion to Cuidad del Este, 200 miles east of Asunción.
The request is aligned with the goals of the church's South America South Area presidency, which is based in Buenos Aires and oversees the church’s work in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.
The area presidency has prioritized health care improvement in three regions of Paraguay — Ciudad del Este, Caaguazu and Asunción.
In the past five years, the area presidency has overseen 26 projects that benefited 137,000 Paraguayans.
The church's Self-Reliance Services programs have helped more than 2,500 Paraguayans start new or improved businesses, find new jobs, complete a personal finance course or pursue additional education since 2015.