Conrado’s Colorful World Comes Alive—A Story From the Tzu Chi Eye Center, the Philippines

Text and photo by Jamaica Mae Digo

Conrado Peñamora found joy and purpose in painting, so when cataracts developed in both of his eyes, he became listless. The Tzu Chi Eye Center helped him undergo surgery, bringing colors back into his life.

With his cataracts successfully removed, Conrado Peñamora is now occupied with working on commissioned paintings.

On January 23, the Tzu Chi Eye Center in Manila, the Philippines, received an extraordinary gift from one of its patients: stunningly lifelike oil paintings of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi, and volunteer surgeon Dr. Peter Lee (李悅民)!

The artist, Conrado Peñamora, 79, created the portraits shortly after undergoing successful surgeries at the Tzu Chi Eye Center in 2023. He finished the paintings, his first creations upon recovering his eyesight, in two months.

“I am grateful to everyone who helped me, but most importantly, to Tzu Chi. If not for their help, my eyesight would not have recovered its clarity,” Conrado said. “After the surgery, I received many requests to paint, but I insisted on working on Master Cheng Yen and Dr. Peter’s portraits first. I would say that these paintings are my masterpieces. They are the most beautiful works of art I have ever created!”

Tzu Chi volunteers were very moved by Conrado’s effort. “This is very unexpected,” volunteer Alfredo Li (李偉嵩) told Conrado, patting him on the back. “Master Cheng Yen said: ‘When we do something good, goodness will return to us unexpectedly.’ This is exactly what happened today.”

“This is a priceless gift,” Dr. Peter agreed. He added that he would display Conrado’s portrait of him in his clinic. “Thank you!” Dr. Peter told him.

Conrado had suffered for nearly three years from poor vision caused by cataracts. In his younger years, he worked as a graphic and layout artist for a printing company. However, when technology disrupted his livelihood, he got laid off. “Computers are now the ones doing most of the work,” he lamented. “It’s very discouraging.”

To keep himself busy, Conrado went back to doing his first love: drawing and painting. He was a Fine Arts undergraduate from the University of Santo Tomas, after all. However, this hobby became very challenging when his vision started to decline. “I had to strain my eyes and wear thick lenses to see my subject,” Conrado said.

Cataracts also made colors appear dull and faded, affecting the quality of his work. For example, he once painted a picture of one of his children’s family while struggling with the condition. It was only after he recovered his eyesight that he realized it had come out yellowish.

And it wasn’t just Conrado’s art that suffered because of his eye ailment—his family also noticed a difference in his behavior. “He became sullen,” described Jeffrey, Conrado’s son-in-law.

Conrado had known for years about the charitable work of Tzu Chi. He used to reside in Santa Mesa, Manila, a few blocks from the Tzu Chi mission complex in Bacood. After the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his children’s business, Conrado’s family was compelled to move to more affordable rental housing in Dasmariñas, Cavite. Despite the distance from their new home to the Tzu Chi Eye Center, Conrado made the long journey to have his eyes checked.

In July 2023, Dr. Peter Lee performed cataract removal surgery on Conrado’s left eye. A month later, Conrado underwent another operation on the right eye. From a visual acuity of 20/200 in both eyes on his first checkup, Conrado’s vision improved to 20/20 on the right and 20/30 on the left. “I feel like a child again!” Conrado giggled.

Today, Conrado continues to paint and proudly declares that he had discarded the pair of eyeglasses he used to wear. “I have no use for them now,” he said, “because I can see so much better. The paintings I create now are even better than the ones I used to create.”

Occupied with requests piling up from clients for portraits, Conrado has never felt more alive. “Painting means a lot to me. It’s one of the things that keeps me strong and young. It also keeps the loneliness at bay because I am constantly busy,” he asserted.

The Tzu Chi Eye Center

Compiled and translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

The Tzu Chi Eye Center in Manila opened in 2016 and is staffed free of charge by medical professionals from the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA). The center serves an average of 700 patients per week, providing free exams and surgeries to prevent blindness, which can significantly impact families’ livelihoods. In 2023 alone, it handled over 20,000 outpatient visits, dispensed medication to 14,000 patients (each visit counted as an individual), and performed nearly 3,000 surgeries. TIMA doctors completed 1,023 shifts, while support volunteers contributed over 1,500 shifts.

This year, the center collaborated with the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation’s Transformative Leadership Institute for a large-scale free clinic event. During the two-day event, held on February 20 and 21, 12 TIMA doctors and Dr. Tadashi Hattori, a Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient in 2022, performed cataract surgeries, restoring vision for over 200 disadvantaged patients.

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