Cataracts aren’t usually a big draw on social media, but millions of people are finding out about this leading cause of blindness — and the 10-minute surgery that can fix it — after a viral video posted by YouTube star MrBeast.
In the clip, titled “1,000 Blind People See For The First Time,” the content creator — whose real name is Jimmy Donaldson — announces that he has paid for cataract surgeries for hundreds of patients who couldn’t afford the procedure.
“When patients go into surgery, there’s a chance that they can get their life back,” Donaldson, who is the most-followed individual YouTuber in the world with 131 million subscribers, says in the video.
“I wanted to provide this to as many people as possible.”
He explains why cataracts cause vision loss: The lens of the eye becomes so cloudy that people can’t see through it. That commonly happens with aging, but cataracts can also form after an eye injury or after an operation for another eye problem, according to the National Eye Institute. TODAY's Savannah Guthrie needed cataract surgery in 2020 after she underwent retinal detachment surgery.
Some people are also born with cataracts and some develop them in childhood, says Dr. Jeffrey Levenson, an ophthalmologist in Jacksonville, Florida, who took part in the MrBeast project.
“About half of all the blindness in the world is caused by cataracts,” Levenson tells TODAY.com.
“There’s a 10-minute surgery that can eliminate blindness, so there’s no reason that half of all these people should be blind.”
Procedure is out of the reach for many people
The surgery involves removing the clouded lens and replacing it with a new artificial one. It’s very safe, and 9 out of 10 people who get it can see better afterwards, National Eye Institute notes.
In the YouTube video, which has been viewed more than 70 million times since Jan. 29, patients are shown looking at the world in disbelief, crying and rejoicing when they discover they can see clearly after their eye bandages are removed post-surgery. Some also receive thousands of dollars from Donaldson. One patient who couldn’t drive before the procedure receives a Tesla.
Levenson says the YouTuber contacted him in September 2022 after seeing the ophthalmologist’s Ted Talk about ending preventable blindness. The doctor is also a board member of Vision Is Priceless, a Florida charity.
“He said ‘Hey, it’s Mr. Beast and I want to do free cataract surgery all around the world for a 1,000 people in three weeks,’” Levenson recalls.
“I’ve never heard of him and it sounded crazy and I almost hung up. I decided not to hang up and I’m glad I didn’t.”
Levenson then reached out to free and homeless clinics around Jacksonville, Florida, and found 40 people who were blind but unable to pay for cataract surgery.
Commercial health insurance, Medicaid and Medicare cover cataract surgery, but there are people who fall between the cracks, Levenson says. He estimates there are 500,000 people in Florida alone who are blind — usually due to cataracts and other repairable conditions — but don’t have health insurance. The surgery, even after substantial discounts, costs $2,000 out of pocket in the U.S., he says.
“It’s out of the reach of the great many people, especially once you’re blind and aren’t working and unable to support yourself,” Levenson notes.
“As you lose your vision, you lose your autonomy; you lose your ability to control the aspects of your life.”
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Helping people see clearly again
He performed cataract surgery on all 40 people in one day, working from 7 a.m. until about 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2022, he says, describing the patients as stunned and grateful that someone would pay for the procedure.
Levenson, who serves as the chief medical officer for Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International, connected Donaldson with the charity to complete the 1,000 cataract surgeries around the world. The YouTube video lists Mexico, Honduras, Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, Kenya and Jamaica as the countries where Donaldson paid for the procedures. Levenson confirmed 1,000 patients total were treated as part of MrBeast's project.
But some social media users have criticized the video. One commenter called it “a tacky and tasteless act of charity porn,” the BBC reported. “How does nobody realize MrBeast is seeking attention with this blind curing [expletive]?” another Twitter user wrote.
Donaldson did not reply to a request for comment, but Levenson says he’s hopeful the viral video will be a catalyst for change.
“There’s no reason, given our current state of technology, that 20 million people in the world should be blind for want of a 10-minute surgery,” he notes.
“There’s nothing like taking a blind person and helping them see again. It’s endlessly fascinating and enjoyable and thrilling. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do.”