Combat Blindness International has been restoring sight for 35 years

Thousands of surgeries have restored sight

In 2018, three generations of a Madison family took a trip to India that would help restore vision to people who are blind and, at the same time, fill the hearts of those doing the helping.

That has been the mission for 34 years, ever since University of Wisconsin–Madison ophthalmologist Suresh Chandra had an epiphany on a 1984 trip to India — his native country — and founded the Combat Blindness Foundation.

In the decades since, there have been many more trips and hundreds of thousands of sight-restoring cataract surgeries.

Still, the 2018 trip was special. Chandra was accompanied by his daughter, Reena Chandra Rajpal, and her two teenage daughters.

They visited a community an hour outside Delhi, where a partner of Chandra’s organization — now called Combat Blindness International — was doing outreach, screening people and recommending glasses or cataract surgery, which can be performed in minutes at minimal cost.

At one point an Indian man watching quietly met Chandra. Cataract surgery had restored the man’s sight some years earlier and now he bent and touched Chandra’s feet, a gesture of high respect.

Why, the man was asked, was he at the screening? He pointed to three women, in line for help. “They need the surgery,” he said. “They were scared to come. I brought them.”

By the end of the day, the women’s lives were utterly changed. They hadn’t been able to see and now they could.

That’s why Chandra Rajpal says the work feeds her soul, and why, in April of this year, she stepped into the role of executive director of Combat Blindness International, succeeding her father.

“I’m so proud my dad has entrusted this — his legacy — to me,” she says. “I want to carry on his good work. It’s needed. If I learned anything from him, it’s that we are a global community. These are our friends. If we can do something, we should.”

Chandra Rajpal remembers being in her family’s living room in Madison in 1983 when her dad met with a few trusted friends to talk about his idea of a nonprofit that would combat blindness in developing countries.

She was around 11. Her dad — who came to UW–Madison in 1974 — spoke about how he’d begun making trips to India to demonstrate advanced retina surgery, his specialty. One day in India he saw dozens of people in line for cataract surgery. By the time he finished his single retina surgery — it took hours — all the cataract patients were in the recovery room.

Clearly cataract surgery (costing $10 per patient at the time) and curing vitamin A deficiency in kids were the best ways to combat blindness in the developing world.

This year Combat Blindness celebrated its 35th anniversary and reached a major milestone, having performed some 370,000 cataract surgeries in 15 countries on four continents.

Chandra Rajpal would occasionally accompany her dad on his trips to India — every other year or so through her teens — and she was thinking about medical school upon graduating from Colby College in Maine.

Instead, she went to Johns Hopkins University for a master’s degree in public health with a focus on international health and epidemiology.

In 1999, she married Keshav Rajpal, a Memorial High School and UW–Madison graduate (Chandra Rajpal went to West High School). They met when they were 8 years old and grew up as friends in Madison’s Indian community.

After some travel related to Rajpal’s work, they returned to Madison to start a family. In 2006, Chandra Rajpal began working as development director for Combat Blindness.

She has stepped away a couple of times since — to serve as a development director for the UW Foundation assigned to the UW Department of Human Oncology and School of Nursing — but always remained on the board of Combat Blindness. She served as interim director prior to taking over full time in April.

“It has worked out extremely well,” says Gordon Derzon, retired president and CEO of UW Hospital and a longtime Combat Blindness board member. “Reena brings both fundraising expertise and a deep knowledge of the organization. She’s bright, personable, writes well and is comfortable talking to people and fundraising.”

Chandra Rajpal credits “our ability to create partnerships” for the success and growth of Combat Blindness.

“From day one,” she says, “we knew it was important to have an in-country partner, with boots on the ground, to help make these surgeries happen.”

One recent example: To eliminate a large backlog of cataract surgeries in the African country of Botswana, the organization partnered with the Botswana Ministry of Health and Wellness, Dr. Shroff’s Charity Eye Hospital in India and Cambridge Global Health Partnerships.

“Each of us had a role to play,” Chandra Rajpal says. “We were all spokes in the wheel. Over the course of three years we did six campaigns. There was a backlog of 6,000 surgeries in the country and we ended up doing 6,200.”

Closer to home, Combat Blindness assists the UW Department of Ophthalmology’s Right to Sight clinic (which serves patients referred from Access Community Health Centers) and provides vision screening for 4K and 5K children in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

On the world stage, the cataract surgeries can now be done for about $25. It’s a message Chandra Rajpal is intent on spreading.

“What captivates people,” she says, “is that for so little, you can help someone in such a significant way.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.

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