After more than 30 years in the field, Dr. James Conahan, MD, is retiring from full-time work as an ophthalmologist in Highlands Ranch beginning in November.
But he won’t be kicking up his heels entirely. Conahan, a Catholic, plans to spend more time with his mission, Healing Eyes, offering free eye surgeries and related services to the poor and blind in Mexico.
“I still have very good hands,” he told the Denver Catholic, holding them out as proof. “They’re not shaky.”
Mission work is not what Conahan had pictured when he began his career as an eye doctor. He was following in his older brother’s footsteps. It was a “happy” field to go into, he said. Most everyone who leaves an operation having recovered their sight is a very grateful and happy person. And it provided a good work-life balance for the father of three.
But it was in 2006 that Conahan’s career took a dramatic shift to include a lot of mission work. While he was reading a book on the beach on vacation in Ixtapa, Mexico, Conahan’s oldest daughter Meagan, about 12 years old at the time, came to him with a request.
“She comes bopping along from the market and said ‘Dad, we have to come down here and do a mission,’” Conahan recalled. “And I said ok, why do you say that?”
Meagan, who had spent enough time with her dad and his work to know, said: “Well everyone at the market has white cataracts.”
Dr. Conahan hesitated. You can’t just come and do a mission, he told his daughter. You need permission to be in the country, you need supplies, you need a team – you need a plan.
Thinking he had brushed the idea aside, Conahan was stopped the next day in the hotel lobby by a woman who knew him from previous mission work in Mante, Mexico, where he had done cataract surgery with a mission through Boulder Community Hospital. After exchanging information, and a few phone calls later, the woman arranged for Conahan to return in October for a glasses clinic.
It was a family affair – Conahan, his wife Molly, their daughter Meagan, and their sons Matt and Brian would help with various parts of the clinic. Conahan prepared his family ahead of time that the whole thing could be a bust: maybe no one would show up, and in that case, they’d just go on vacation.
To their surprise, 150 people showed up every day for the next four days of the mission. Conahan said he had to turn about half of them away, as they were completely blind from cataracts and needed surgery, which he had not come prepared to do.
Unknown to Conahan at the time, as Molly led those patients out of the clinic, she promised them they would be back in six weeks, prepared to do cataract surgery.
When Conahan found out, “I was mad,” he said. “Here’s my arrogance…I said Molly, you just don’t get it. You don’t even understand what it takes to do surgery.”
Molly asked him what it would take. Conahan said they’d need instruments, supplies, a staff – and money, quite a bit of it, to pay for everything.
“She said ok, we’ll put our whole tithe to it,” Conahan said. Still upset, he returned to his office and half-heartedly asked who would be willing to accompany him on a medical mission to Mexico at Christmas time. Again, to his surprise, several people from his office volunteered.
“Well, I don’t have any supplies,” Conahan said, and he called a medical supplier he knew from his time with Boulder Community Hospital. The supplier was able to get him four sets of instruments for $800 total – about 10 percent of the cost of what Conahan had expected to pay.
One by one, Conahan said, his excuses were melting away and God’s plan was falling into place.
“At that moment, it was sort of like I got hit by a two-by-four: ‘Oh, yeah. God wants me to do this,’” he recalled. “My wife loves that story,” he added.
For the first official mission, Conahan and his small team treated 35 cases. Since that first mission, Conahan, his wife, and a team have gone to Mexico twice a year every year (they have only missed one mission in 2009, and one during COVID-19 lockdowns) and performed well over 4,000 eye surgeries, distributed more than 12,000 pairs of glasses, and seen more than 10,000 patients.
One of Conahan’s favorite stories from his mission work over the years involved a woman named Julia.
Julia, who was roughly 35 years old, came from one of the mountain villages surrounding the area of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and was pushed in a wheelchair to the mission by her mother. Julia had been mentally handicapped all her life, her mother explained, but five years ago, she had essentially “died”, when white cataracts covered her eyes and rendered her blind.
“She’s just listless,” Conahan said. “I remember telling Molly, it was like she (Julia) had no life.”
Conahan agreed to operate on Julia, and when she returned the next day to have her eye patches removed, Conahan said it was like she came back to life.
“We take off her patch and it’s like…you saw this white corpse, and it’s like blood just filled her up. And she screamed: ‘Mom! I can see! And you’re so beautiful!’” Conahan recalled. “Well, everybody is in tears.”
To some degree, Conahan said, it’s a transformation that he sees in many of his patients. It’s almost like the scenes in the Bible where Jesus cures the blind, he noted.
“I was blind and now I see, right? And it’s really powerful…I see the glory that God gave us to see,” he said.
Conahan said it has also been amazing to witness the faith of many of the people he treats in Mexico.
“You can’t imagine the number of people who in front of me have dropped to their knees with their rosaries in their hand, you know, praising God” that their sight is restored, he said.
In November, Dr. Conahan’s retirement from full-time work will become official. With more of his time freed up, he plans to spend more time doing mission work for as long as he feels called and as long as his hands allow.
“I just don’t want to have any regret,” he said.
Currently, with COVID restrictions and the mission schedule, his surgery waitlist is two years long.
“It’s unconscionable,” he said. So Conahan’s wife Molly, who works as his scrub tech on missions, proposed a plan. Instead of going down for one-week missions, where the pace of surgery was getting to be too much anyway, the team will now go down for two weeks, with a few built-in days for rest and recuperation. This will allow Conahan and his team to see more patients, but in a way that also preserves their stamina as they get older.
“So right now the plan is to go down in January and do a one-week mission, and then in April do a two-week mission,” Conahan said. Then the team will probably add a two-week mission in the summer as well. They also hope to bring along some more surgeons in some upcoming missions.
If all goes well, Conahan said they could possibly do missions that are three weeks long, with the goal being to have two or three missions a year that would last two or three weeks each.
Conahan said he is inspired by two great saints in his mission: St. John Paul II and Mother Teresa.
“My mission is summed up by what John Paul II said: ‘Your being increases to the degree you’ll give it away,’” he said. “I have goosebumps talking about it.”
“Mother Teresa Calcutta is our mentor. And…she said she wanted to see the face of Jesus in the poor. In our cases, it’s in the blinded poor,” he said.
He said he is also inspired by Mother Teresa’s philosophy that everyone has a part to play in doing “something beautiful for God.”
“I’m not arrogant enough to think that this mission is because I do the surgery, right? I mean, it’s a team,” he added. “And so Mother Teresa taught me that you can do something I can’t, and I can do something you can’t. But together we can do something beautiful for God. So let’s begin. Let’s just do it.”
Conahan added that it was incredible to see how God has worked through his career and his life to bring about all of the good work the mission has done.
“To see the fingerprint of God in all of this is just humbling.”