Lucy Mathen: opening people’s eyes

14 Feb

Everyone has a story on the Islington Faces Blog.  Suppose you knew that cataract surgery was one of the 10 best health interventions to reduce poverty, would you ditch your job to find a way to cure reversible blindness in India’s poorest states by the year 2020? Highbury’s Lucy Mathen, 60, did. Interview by Nicola Baird.


Lucy Mathen at her Second Sight
office desk.

“Everything begins and ends with blindness,” says Lucy Mathen with customary force. At first this idea seems strange because Lucy spent 15 years as a journalist. Her career came to a halt when she did a television interview with a doctor in Afghanistan that made her feel a fraud – the doctor thought the interview might help his cause, Lucy knew it would change nothing.

Buy Lucy Mathen’s book A Runaway Goat, because every copy sold for £20 means one more person will be cured of blindness. To get a copy call Lucy on 0207 359 1315. She says: “I am happy to deliver by cycle if they are not too far away!”

So at 36 she left to retrain as a doctor and became an ophthalmologist. The plan was to do something more effective in the world, an ambition she aims to fulfill by working in two of the poorest Indian states, Bihar and Orissa, which also contain the greatest number of people who are unnecessarily blind from cataract.

Lucy Mathen: “Everything begins and ends with blindness.”

Lucy set up the charity Second Sight in 2000 – it still has its HQ at a desk in the corner of her bedroom. At first she funded the charity by continuing to work as a locum ophthalmologist. This was also a good way to enthuse her fellow British ophthalmologists to volunteer as eye surgeons to go out to India to carry out cataract surgery. Lucy herself clocked up thousands of miles of travel to the remotest parts of India, assessing hospital teams and persuading Indian ophthalmologists in private practice in the cities to do their bit to cure the rural blind. Twelve years on Lucy runs Second Sight full-time and there are over 50 professionals who volunteer in all kinds of roles.

Noble as both this achievement and her charity’s zero overheads are, it doesn’t explain how Lucy is also managing to kick child marriages into touch, educate poor girls and get women well-paid, skilled hospital jobs … all thanks to a football academy in Bihar.

Turns out this curious link between football and curing blindness starts thanks to Lucy’s fondness for a kick-around on Highbury Fields that’s been going on for 20 years. “My daughter Leyla, then about eight, came home from Drayton Park School in a fury. Our family is sports mad and she was a very good footballer. Her team of girls had lost their match. She said it was because they chose all the best boys for the boys’ team so they won, but with the girls the coach said oh poor little so and so let’s give her a go. The best players were left on the bench, and so the girls lost. She did not like losing.’

To soothe Leyla, Lucy suggested playing a regular footie game with other families every Sunday on Highbury Fields. “Most of us had never played football. The girls were very good and we played so often we got better and better. Soon there were so many players we could play 11 aside – and it was always mixed teams. Then the girls grew up and went away to uni and the adults continued.”

Fast forward to 2013 and Lucy reckons the team members “are getting too lazy to turn up every week but it’s still a tradition to play on birthdays.” Her point is that everywhere you go people love football. “There are always people to play football with,” she says. “They may have bare feet, but there’s always a pitch.”

That’s how on one working trip to Bihar, in the north of India, she ended up playing a game of football with girls in the village of Mastichak and the head of the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital, Mritunjay Tiwary (who also turned out to be a fanatical footballer). For Mritunjay, it got synapses flowing that has led to something beautiful — a football academy that helps give families the option to educate their girls and get them hospital jobs — rather than marry them off at 13 or 14 years.

The story is well told in Lucy’s book, Runaway Goat, which she sells for £20 – “buy a copy to cure one person of blindness”. And now there’s another Lucy project, a film about the footballing Indian girlsJunction for Having Fun, which makes the football-cataract connection even easier to follow and will hopefully see a big spike in Second Sight’s fundraising fortunes.

“It’s a drag being an inspiration unless it gets people to do something,” says Lucy passionately, and she should know – in 1976, aged 23, she was the first Asian news reporter/presenter on TV thanks to her stint on John Craven’s Newsround. “I want people to think ‘I can do that’, not ‘that’s inspiring’. Taking the film around opens up people’s eyes – it is about all these wonderful Indians in the film. Audiences watch it and then everyone bounces out saying ‘I wonder if I could do that? What could I do to help?’”

The work Lucy’s doing to cure needless cataract blindness is superb. Do have a look at her book or the film – or just make a donation to Second Sight. All it takes is £20 to cure a blind person, plus a very readable book into the bargain.

Find out more

FILM – Junction for Having Fun (50 mins) is on tour at various film festivals, look at this link to find out if it’s near you. On 22 February 2013 it will be shown at the Keswick Film Festival, Theatre by the Lake.

BOOK – Spend £20 which will cure one person of blindness and you get Lucy’s “lovely little book” Runaway Goat (that’s a quote from the venerable Dervla Murphy, whose first book in 1965 was Full Tilt: from Ireland to India with a bicycle). Buy it via here, or from John at Travelmania, 125 Holloway Road, London, N7 8LT, tel: 020 7700 4844. Or borrow from Central Library, Holloway Road.

DONATE TO THE CHARITY – Look at Second Sight, which needs money in order to 1) eradicate cataract blindness from the worst affected and most neglected areas in India by 2020, 2) help partner hospitals establish themselves as eye hospitals able to provide all aspects of eye-care to the highest standards in rural India.

MORE ON LUCY  – You can see a fascinating summary from the Guardian printed after Lucy won the inaugural BMJ Karen Woo awards (Nov 2012) to recognise doctors who have gone beyond the call of duty.

Over to you
Have you had a dream you fulfilled in Islington?  By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. And yes, this blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.


4 Responses to “Lucy Mathen: opening people’s eyes”

  1. Nicolette Jones February 14, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    Amazing story, Nicola. But is Lucy’s age right? Surely not 60 from the pics?

    N 16-24 March

    St Hilda’s Writers’ Day at the Oxford Literary Festival Sunday 17 March (search ‘Hilda’)

    Young People’s Programme directed by Nicolette Jones: 25 events include Eoin Colfer, Julia Donaldson, Cornelia Funke, Charlie Higson, Anthony Horowitz, Shirley Hughes, Roger McGough, Philip Pullman …

    • homemadekids February 14, 2013 at 11:18 am #

      Nicolette – Lucy IS 60, at least that’s what she told me (and with these interviews I always make sure I have copy approval from the interviewee as I want people to be proud and happy about what’s written about them in their neighbourhood). Lucy is crazily full of energy – I felt utterly humble at how little I have in comparison. Clearly we have to start playing football! Nicola

      • Caroline Russell February 14, 2013 at 11:46 am #

        Nicolette and Nicola I can also confirm that the utterly inspirational Lucy Mathen (my opposite neighbour when I lived in Battledean Rd) is 60.

  2. homemadekids February 14, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    From Twitter – Karin says “So many people must feel they’ve been given their lives back.”

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