For thousands of years, the Sherpa people of Nepal have been navigating the icy slopes of the world’s tallest and most formidable mountains. And while their eyes have guided countless adventurers safely up and down the slopes of Everest, they have recently been noticing that many Sherpa children are having issues with their eyesight at school.
At least that’s what Sydney optometrist Shaun Chang learned when he stopped by the Kunde Hospital while trekking in the area back in 2013.
“The doctor there asked what I did back in Australia and I said I was an optometrist. He showed me this room with bags of donated glasses and optometry equipment," Chang tells SBS. “He said, ‘We have kids that can’t see the board at school but we don’t know how to test them for nearsightedness, can you help us?’”
Sifting through the equipment, Chang found they didn’t have everything necessary to perform the correct tests, nor did he have enough time to teach the staff how to do them.
Instead, he flew home and set up the Eyes4Everest charity, and a year and a half later, he was back in the remote Sherpa communities. But this time, two other optometrists were in tow.
“We saw 150 patients - 132 of which were children - in two and half days,” he says, “it was busy, my average day is about 12 to 14 patients.”
“Many Sherpa children had vision issues when reading, but what we found wasn’t necessarily much nearsightedness, but a lot of children with astigmatism which can contribute to eye strain,” Chang explains.
“As part of my eye examination I like to look at visual inspection skills and we were finding that in a lot of Sherpa kids, their eyes were designed to look far away not up close. This could explain why some children were getting headaches at school.”
Although Chang and his team were able to give donated glasses to many children, they were disappointed to find that they didn’t have enough time to see many more people who travelled hours in some cases, to use their services.
As a result, the team – which has since expanded to eight optometrists - returned earlier this year and visited three Sherpa villages along the Everest base-camp trekking route under the leadership of optometrist Joe Wang.
He tells SBS that examined 200 children at the Himalayan School in the village Namche Bazaar over two days before moving on to service a very different group of students in the village of Dingboche
“We also visited a monastery where the monks had told our guide that they had trouble reading,” Wang says, “As you can imagine, they spend a lot of time studying scripture so we provided a number of glasses there as well.”
Wang explains that healthcare can be difficult for the Sherpa people to access as many of the communities in the Everest region are remote and “due to difficult terrain, all transport either goes on foot or by expensive helicopter flights when the weather allows.”
This also means that for the team travelling from Australia, much of the their time is spent making their way to and from the villages, limiting the number of days they can spend actually conducting examinations. In both of these aspects of their volunteer work however, they have enjoyed the overwhelming support of local Sherpa people and guides.
“We’ve only come so far because we’ve had the help and support of the Sherpa people, if they weren’t on board we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere,” Chang says.
While conducting examinations on both visits, Sherpa guides fluent in English volunteered to provide translation and help out with the eye testing.
“They’re very selfless people, you hear about Sherpa people rescuing trekkers and climbers, well they also make sure that they get the children seen first, followed by the women and elderly before the men, they have a lot of character,” Chang says.
He also recalls how a child with albinism and one whose malnutrition growing up had left her with very limiting sight, were brought forward by the community as priority patients.
“When you find that patient who you know glasses are going to make the world of difference to, that makes it worth it,” Chang says.
Wang adds that this is particularly true when it comes to young children. “If they have trouble reading they don’t do very well at school because their learning system is heavily dependent on good vision," he says.
"So by virtue of allowing them to read comfortably and clearly, we can potentially change the outlook of a child’s whole life."
It isn’t just the glasses that help. Wang says their eye exams have also helped identify other underlying health concerns, as was the case with one Sherpa man with diabetes.
“Diabetes is a disease that affects your blood vessels and there are blood vessels on the retina at the back of the eye that we can see as we conduct an eye examination," Wang explains.
"We were able to tell this person that his diabetes was not well controlled and needs to be better looked after, something that will potentially save him from more severe issues down the track."
Going forward, Chang wants his charity to collaborate even more closely with the local Sherpa people and says that "ultimately, Eyes4Everest has to continue and be championed by both Nepalese and Sherpa people because it stands to benefit them."
"Eventually we want to contract as many Nepalese and Sherpa people as we can. As of next year we will be employing Nepalese optometrists to come along with the Australian volunteers, and expand to other regions in Nepal such as Annapurna," he says.
Over the three volunteer trips they have made to date, Eyes4Everest has prescribed and dispensed 253 pairs of glasses, which the children between the ages of three and 18 have received free of charge.
While the birth of his daughter meant Chang wasn't able to attend this year's trip, he hopes to lead an even bigger team back to the region to continue their work in late 2017.