Occupation: Eye surgeon
What’s on her mind these days: “Curing corneal blindness and where my next cycling trip will take me.”
When eye surgeon Dr. Audrey Rostov became aware of SightLife 15 years ago, “it was just our local eye bank,” she says. Since then it has grown into an international organization with a “global initiative project to eliminate worldwide corneal blindness.”
Audrey, a partner-owner at Northwest Eye Surgeons in Seattle, is a member of SightLife’s medical advisory board and recently returned from a trip to India, the latest of three overseas training trips she has taken on behalf of the organization.
“Most of the corneal blind live in developing countries,” she explains, with disease mainly caused by fungal and bacterial infections of the eye due to unsanitary conditions and lack of access to clean water and health care.
India has a particularly high rate of corneal blindness, “so SightLife has taken on the project to establish eye banks in India,” Audrey says. The organization provides some seed money and surgeon and technician training. “The goal is for these individual eye banks to become self sustaining in five years.”
The program is “not like …[medical] mission trips,” which provide temporary medical services, she says. “It’s more like the ‘teaching someone to fish’ philosophy.”
In order to eliminate corneal blindness, you not only need surgeons and surgical skills, but you also need corneal tissue, so another important aspect of SightLife’s work is standardizing the processes and protocols for evaluating tissue for transplantation.
Indian eye banks also work hard to overcome “cultural resistance to organ donation” among Hindus and Muslims — the country’s predominant religious groups. Their message for prospective donors and their families is that “you won’t need your corneas after you die; in your next life you’ll still be able to see without the corneal tissue.”
This was Audrey’s second trip to India. Her first was two-and-a-half years ago, when SightLife had only two banks.
“Now we have eight,” she says.
She notes that on this trip “I did the first all-laser corneal transplant in Delhi.”
The trip took Audrey to India during Rosh Hashanah and she tried to find a service to attend in Jaipur. She was told there would be “something Jewish” at a multi-denominational building called the Lotus Temple, but, she lamented, “my stars did not align.” The building was not open during the posted time (common in India) and proved to be over an hour from where she was staying. On her prior trip, however, she and her husband David visited the ancient synagogue in Cochin and met with one of the few surviving — and elderly — members of that residual Jewish community.
Around this time last year, Rostov traveled to China to help establish clinical cataract teaching centers in rural areas. That trip overlapped with Yom Kippur, but she managed to ferret out “the only Reform services in Beijing.” The worshippers were mostly expatriates, many from Boston.
“It was really lovely,” she says.
China, notes Rostov, presents a very different disease and treatment profile than India. China lacks infrastructure for treatment, especially in rural areas. Only about half of ophthalmologists do surgery for the predominant problem of cataracts, “and they don’t have a culture of teaching each other,” she says.
The medical system there also lacks the care and follow-up systems that are so common in the U.S.
“I’ve always had an interest in public health and international world health,” says the Harvard alumna and Washington University School of Medicine graduate.
While she jokes that her work with SightLife is a “second job,” Rostov is also an avid triathlete who swims and bikes regularly. The family, with their three teenagers, belong to Temple Beth Am in Seattle.
With her expertise in cornea, external disease and anterior segment surgery, Audrey is in frequent demand to teach and present at conferences around the world. She is also a laser surgery expert with extensive training and experience in refractive procedures including LASIK and PRK. Read her full profile at www.nweyes.com/audrey-talley-rostov.html, and a description of one of her Indian surgeries at SightLife’s “Surgical Partners” page at