MANATEE -- Bradenton's Paul Benton is a former professional pool player who worked in construction until sight problems forced him to quit in 2008.
Benton needed cataract surgery on both eyes in order to resume his career but didn't have insurance or any other way to pay for it, he said.
This month, Benton was among 100 uninsured patients, including 20 from Manatee County, who received vision-restoring surgery from four local eye doctors at Mission Cataract.
Doctors who have donated the free local surgeries for 20 years include ophthalmological and optometry surgeons from Center For Sight in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties.
The surgeons are Drs. David Shoemaker, William Lahners, Joshua Kim and William Soscia. A full team of Center For Sight anesthetists, medical technicians, nurses and administrative staff also volunteered.
"I am so thankful that Center For Sight offered this opportunity," Benton said following June 4 surgery on one eye and the other June 11 by Dr. Soscia. "I already notice a big difference, and I'm getting on my girlfriend's nerves because I can see everything around the house now."
"Paul was a fun patient," Soscia said. "He had a great attitude and an obvious hunger
for life. People like Paul are the reason Center For Sight participates in Mission Cataract year after year."
According to the Mission Cataract USA website, Center For Sight is the only ophthalmology practice in Florida to participate in Mission Cataract. Most patients who received free surgeries this year were from Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties with some traveling as far away as South Carolina.
"Having this surgery will enable me to work into the night and pick up more hours," Benton added. "I can't wait to go to the movies or even get back into playing pool."
Soscia said he gets as much back as his patients receive.
"This event's impact on me compounds every year," Soscia said. "We're with these patients in surgery for such a short amount of time, but the change for them is astronomical. To restore vision is to regain hope."
To qualify, patients must have poor vision from cataracts uncorrectable by glasses. Patients also can not have any Medicare, Medicaid or third-party insurance coverage and no other means to pay for the surgery, according to Mission Cataract officials.
"What I love most about cataract surgery is that it provides an immediate result with endless benefit," Soscia said. "We feel honored and blessed when the patients tell us just how much we've changed their lives. It's a very special, humbling moment that I always try to hold onto."
In 1991, Dr. Fred Richburg, director of Valley Eye Institute in Fresno, Calif., decided to donate one day a year to doing free cataract surgeries for people who could not afford them. He called his idea: Mission Cataract Fresno '91.
"There are many working people who need cataract surgery but can't afford to pay for it," Richburg said. "They have no insurance and don't qualify for Medicare, Medicaid or any other form of governmental assistance."
That year, Richburg and local volunteers screened more than 150 people and Richburg performed free cataract surgery for 21 people. The next year, the program expanded to six eye surgeons throughout California.
By 1993, Mission Cataract had expanded nationwide with many eye surgeons doing free cataract surgery, Richburg said.
"Together we have helped a lot of people," Richburg said.
Information: CenterForSight.net. or call 941-925-2020.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.