‘Oh my God. Oh my God.”
Those are Cynthia Burke’s first words after Senator Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, completes her eye surgery, removing the cataract in her right eye. Lying down in the operation room, Burke, a 55-year-old woman from the Ozarks town of Fredericktown, Mo., looks up. Standing above her are Paul and another ophthalmologist, Barbara Bowers, both dressed in blue scrubs.
Because of her cataracts, Burke hadn’t been able to perceive much color, and couldn’t see at all in her right eye when there wasn’t natural light. But now, with the surgery just completed, Burke’s sight is already hugely improved. “You have on blue clothes,” Burke marvels.
Paul, who just moments ago was bent over Burke, looking through a microscope at her eye as he methodically and precisely moved needles and tools to remove the cataract, laughs happily. “You’re seeing colors again,” he warmly observes.
“Now you’ll recognize him on TV,” Bowers jokes to Burke about Paul.
“Oh my God,” Burke repeats. “It’s awesome. Oh my goodness.”
Burke is one of four patients that Paul performs pro bono eye surgery on today. In recent years, Paul has done between 10 and 15 eye surgeries a year for free. “I’ve always done some since I’ve been in practice,” he recounts. In 1995, Paul founded the Southern Kentucky Lions Eye Clinic, which provided free eye care for low-income people, “because I wanted to be able to give back to the community.” He did free operations for locals and also for children who had come all the way from Guatemala.
Paul estimates he has done over a hundred pro bono surgeries over the years. In the health-care debate, he remarks, it was overlooked how many doctors already perform free surgeries for those in need. Performing surgery pro bono, Paul insists, “is not unusual for physicians.”
Burke, a health-care worker who helps elderly men and women with home care, says she heard about the pro bono cataract surgeries from a friend. For about five years, she had suffered from cataracts. “Here’s the thing: When the sun goes down, or if the sun’s not up yet, this girl can’t drive. I have no vision at all in my right eye,” Burke told me before the surgery. She was tired of all the limitations the cataracts imposed on her: “I’m only 55 years old, come on, it’s not time to give up on this life.”
Today, she is all smiles. “I’ve been so excited I can’t hardly wait,” says Burke, who has a blonde-brown bob hairstyle and wears a plaid shirt. She jokes that she should ask Paul to inscribe a small tattoo under her eyelid that shows he did her surgery so people will know she’s telling the truth. “Nobody else will ever believe that Rand Paul, the senator of Kentucky, did my cataract surgery,” Burke predicts. “The girls at work are going to say ‘No, no, no,’ and I’m going to say ‘Oh, yes.’”
In a nearby room at Bowers’s clinic waits Judy Prince, who will also be having cataract-removal surgery today. “I’m totally blind in my left eye,” says Prince, a 61-year-old woman with short, gray hair and a calm demeanor. Prince, who lives in Bardwell, Ky., and who voted for Paul in 2010, notes that her vision regularly makes her feel disoriented: “I feel like I’m walking sideways,” she remarks.
Five weeks ago, Prince had broken her arm because of a sight-related accident. “I was outside and a car came around the corner, and the light shone in my right eye, and so that made me totally blind,” Prince recalls.
“I fell and I dislocated my elbow and I broke my arm because I thought I was going to reach out — I knew I was going to fall,” she explains, “and I thought I was close enough to our truck, I was going reach out — [but] I wasn’t anywhere near close to our truck. So I fell right on my arm, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t get up.”
A few months prior, Prince had stopped driving, concerned about the safety risk of relying solely on one eye. Told by her optometrist she needed to see an ophthalmologist to take care of her cataracts, Prince opted to consult Bowers, who was also her mother’s ophthalmologist. Prince planned to ask about a monthly payment plan to finance the surgery.
“I would have to pay for it out of my pocket, because I don’t have any health insurance,” Prince explains. Her husband, who is nine years older, is on Medicare, but Prince is too young to qualify and can’t afford the $690 a month she says health insurance would cost her. She was thrilled when Bowers told her that she and Paul did pro bono surgeries. “Finding out that he would do it for nothing is like he just gave me $2,800,” Prince says.