Tears of joy

By Nicole Endres

For retired ophthalmologist William Conrad, ’61 M.D., it was an unforgettable moment.

He was in a Tibetan community in west China with GANSU, INC, a nonprofit organization he founded to provide free eye care to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. A woman had come to him because she had been essentially blind for the last several years. Conrad’s team found that she had cataracts in both eyes, with no better than light perception or hand-motion vision in the most affected eye. “She had to be led into the exam room for a preoperative checkup,” Conrad says.

The next day, the vision in her surgically repaired eye was 20/60. She walked into her postoperative checkup unaided, with a huge smile on her face, Conrad says. A translator took the photo of the woman (above) on a digital camera and showed it to her.

“She began to laugh, uncontrollably, with embarrassment at her funny appearance. But then — almost as though a light was turned on as she realized she was seeing that picture with her own eyes — she began to weep, again uncontrollably,” he says. “There was not a dry eye among any of us, either.”

Though Conrad operated on this particular woman in 2007, the emotions of that day come flooding back to him when he tells her story. 

This was just one memorable case in the 22-year life of his GANSU, INC (which stands for “Gaining a New Sight for Unseeing, IN China”; Gansu is also the name of the province in China where his grandparents were missionaries, which inspired him to first visit the area and then, later, start his outreach medical mission). In the organization’s history, Conrad’s teams of 195 volunteers performed 6,543 cataract surgeries, the large majority of which took place in three pop-up camper trailers in rural west China. GANSU, INC’s use of modified pop-ups was the first ever for third-world eye surgeries, Conrad says.

“GANSU, INC,” he says, “without question, was the highlight of my professional career as an ophthalmologist.”

Today, at age 80, Conrad is enjoying his retirement in Georgia. He says he remembers with great fondness his time at the U of M Medical School.

Published on April 5, 2016

(Photo: Juliet Chen, courtesy of William Conrad, M.D.)