While many of us are sitting at Thanksgiving tables laden with turkey, mashed potatoes and pie, Dr. Dante Pieramici will be worlds away from our traditional celebration of gratitude, standing over an operating table in Central America.
In lieu of football games and food hangovers, Pieramici, a vitreoretinal surgeon, will lead a team from the California Retina Research Foundation and Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International — both Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organizations — on a journey to El Progresso, Honduras, for a humanitarian retina surgery mission.
Pieramici will treat numerous patients during his four-day clinical visit to Centro Cristiano de Servicios Humanitario de Honduras health clinic.
“SEE International has been focused primarily on just doing cataract surgeries, but they really want to branch out because there’s a growing problem with diabetes, particularly in Latin American countries,” explained Pieramici, a SEE board member.
“This would be an opportunity for them to try to use some of the latest technologies. ... Not only helping some of the patients down there, but also to try to help create a sustainable center where they can continue to treat patients with diabetes as they come in.”
Diabetic-related retinal diseases are one of Pieramici’s specialties. This will be SEE’s first mission to establish diabetic-retinopathy screening and teaching programs in developing countries. The clinic in Honduras will be used as a model that can be expanded to other countries.
“Not only will I be caring for diabetics in the clinics, I will also be doing some surgery and laser treatments and showing them some of the newer drugs that we use for diabetic patients,” he said.
“Diabetes is the No. 1 cause of blindness in younger patients — people under the age of 50 — as opposed to some of the other world blindness problems like cataracts and mascular degeneration that tend to affect an older population.”
Pieramici said technology is enabling medical professionals to keep up with the latest information and advancements, but access to the proper equipment continues to be a challenge.
“Some of the new drugs that we use are very expensive and a lot of the equipment requires disposable things that have to be bought and used for single use,” he said. “So caring for diabetes internationally, particularly in Third World countries, becomes difficult.
“But we are trying to do some basic things with laser therapy and injection of certain medications that may not be so expensive and reusable.”
Pieramici is a board-certified ophthalmologist who has been in Santa Barbara for about 10 years and was recently voted one of the Best Doctors in America for 2011-2012.
He previously held academic positions at the Yale University Eye Center and the prestigious Wilmer Eye Institute at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he served as director of ocular trauma.
As a partner of the California Retina Consultants and the California Retina Research Foundation, Pieramici routinely works with doctors and medical students who come to the Santa Barbara facility from all over the world to train and research the latest technologies and techniques.
“We’ve had doctors from Mongolia, Africa, and recently from Romania and Mexico,” he said. “If they have the wherewithal to travel here they come and work with us in the clinic and in the operating room. These are some of the things that the foundation can do.”
Pieramici said Honduras was selected for this week’s expedition because it isn’t as “rustic” as some of the sites SEE plans to take its program to in the future.
“They have an eye hospital; they do a lot good care already as far as taking care of cataracts,” he said. “They do some retina care, they take care of diabetics, and they do have a laser there already.”
Pieramici’s wife, Ann Muchnick, and their two daughters — Arin, 11, and Lily, 9, both students at Crane Country Day School — will accompany him to Honduras, along with Melvin Rabena, research director for the California Retina Research Foundation.
While Pieramici has been on several trips for SEE, this is the first time the entire family will accompany him.
“They’ve been to places like Costa Rica and they’ve traveled a lot ... but this will be a little poorer place so I think it will be a good experience for them,” he said.
“(The girls) are taking Spanish in school and so I think it will be a good opportunity to use their Spanish, but I think also to see how other people get by or are living life will be an education for them,” he added. “When you grow up in Santa Barbara it is a pretty unique place and it’s sort of sheltered in a lot of ways.”
When asked if he thinks his daughters will follow his footsteps into medicine, Pieramici, whose brothers are all doctors, laughed.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “They don’t even like science! But who knows? I hope they do whatever they like and work hard at it.”
Well, they’ve certainly got a good role model for that.
The California Retina Research Foundation is a nonprofit, research-oriented division of the California Retina Consultants that offers clinical trial research to a variety of patients on the Central Coast. It is paid for by private donations. Click here for more information about CRRF, or call 805.963.1648.
Santa Barbara-based Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International was founded in 1974 as a humanitarian medical nonprofit organization. It has completed more than 400,000 sight-restoring surgeries worldwide, with a record 15,463 surgeries, performed in 2010. Click here for more information about SEE, or call 805.963.3303. Click here to make an online donation. Connect with SEE International on Facebook. Follow SEE International on Twitter: @SEE_Intl.