Curing Blindness in Nepal: Engineering Alum Assists the Himalayan Cataract Project

When Orlando Crespo became part of the senior design project sponsored by Clarity Design, he had no idea what adventures lay ahead for him. As a senior engineering student, he enjoyed working on a real-world project as part of a team. But Tom Lupfer, CEO of Clarity Design, was observing him and liked what he saw. Once Orlando graduated with a double-major in mechanical engineering and physics, Lupfer made him an offer and brought him aboard full-time. Lupfer had a unique project in mind for Orlando.

Three months later, Orlando was on a plane headed for Nepal, where he would spend 5 weeks at the Tilganga Institute of Opthamology in Kathmandu. The trip was sponsored by Clarity Design and Orlando’s purpose was to evaluate the equipment that eye surgeons use to perform cataract surgery. Cataracts are the leading cause of curable blindness in developing countries. When people in developing countries develop cataracts, it often means they can no longer work. In poor countries with no safety net, it can be a death sentence.

Lupfer states, “Orlando was a good choice because of his double major in engineering and physics, given the optics focus. And his worldview, shaped at least in part by USD, was very in keeping with the humanitarian focus of the project.”

Lupfer’s interest in supporting the cataract project can be traced back to his time as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford. It was there that he met Dr. Geoff Tabin, who would eventually co-found The Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP), with Dr. Sanduk Ruit. The HCP began in 1995 as a small outpatient clinic in Kathmandu. It has since spread throughout the Himalayas and across Sub-Saharan Africa, providing education and training for local eye-care professionals, and has overseen around 500,000 low-cost, high-quality cataract surgeries.

When Lupfer phoned Tabin and offered to provide engineering design services to assist in improving the cataract equipment used by HCP, Tabin was delighted to accept the help.

During his 5 weeks in Nepal, Orlando spent time understanding the equipment needs. He studied an operating microscope to see how it worked and how it might be made lighter and more portable, for use in the smaller villages outside of Kathmandu. He traveled with a group of doctors to the Pullahari monastery, where 200 cataract surgeries were performed in 2 days. Many of these surgeries were performed at no cost – the remaining at a minimal cost.

This fall, when senior engineering students heard about the project in Nepal, there was so much student interest that Clarity Design is now sponsoring two engineering projects. Both focus on designing a less costly tonometer (used for measuring intra-ocular pressure) for glaucoma screening in developing countries.

Lupfer hopes to send Orlando back to Nepal with prototypes next summer.

According to Lupfer, “This was not a one-and-done effort. Clarity Design remains committed to the Himalayan Cataract Project for the long-term. We are pleased with Orlando’s enthusiasm and technical skills to help such a worthy cause.”

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