Dr. Jeffrey Levenson of Jacksonville, Fla., is one of the most enthusiastic eye doctors to volunteer with SEE International, an organization dedicated to eradicating preventable blindness worldwide.
His commitment to the California-based nonprofit’s goal stems from personal experience, and a sense of perspective that can only be gained from partially losing one’s eye sight, and then having it restored.
In 2009, at age 51, Dr. Levenson was diagnosed with cataracts in both of his eyes. Over the course of six months, he found simple tasks such as reading, driving or even discerning objects through bright sunlight difficult.
The irony was not lost on him. Dr. Levenson is an ophthalmologist and specializes in performing cataract surgeries. He estimates that in his 30 years of practice, he has performed close to 20,000 surgeries.
As his condition progressed, several questions immediately came to mind: Which of his fellow ophthalmologists would he ask to do his surgery? How much time would he have to take off from work? What type of implant would he choose to optimize his vision?
"Not once,” Dr. Levenson recounts, “did I ever question whether I'd actually lose my eyesight."
As is the case with more than 98 percent of cataract surgeries, Dr. Levenson’s was successful. What surprised him, however, was how strongly having his eyesight totally restored would affect him.
“My cataract patients had always told me after they removed their eye patches how the world looked brighter, colors looked truer, how much more beautiful everything looked,” he said. “Now I really knew what they meant.”
The emotional impact he felt was overwhelming. Now the work he did for a living felt much more important. It also fostered in him a broader sense of responsibility toward others suffering from blindness. Dr. Levenson knows how lucky he is to have had access to eye care when he needed it.
“It’s a little miracle that we have, living in a developed country,” he said.
However, millions of people worldwide are not so fortunate. So in July 2009, he joined SEE International on a two-week volunteer expedition to Peru. There, he performed cataract surgeries with host doctor Artemio Burga. Giving eye care to people who badly needed it was a life-changing experience for Levenson.
"I was now once again thrilled to be an ophthalmologist!” he said. “My experience with SEE rekindled my love for ophthalmology, and rejuvenated my passion for a career dedicated to restoring sight. I feel like I could work forever."
Since then, Dr. Levenson has been on four more trips with SEE, each of them with their fair share of learning experiences and inspirational moments. During one cataract surgery clinic in Perquin, El Salvador, an old man appearing to suffer from dementia was waiting in line. Time was running short, and many patients still needed to be seen. At first, it seemed unfair to spend the time and resources operating on a man who seemed too ill to interact with the world around him, especially when there were many more lucid patients who still needed to be seen. But after the doctors had finished removing his cataracts and took off his eye patches, an amazing transformation took place: The old man’s mental faculties seemed to return to him.
“He started walking around the room in excitement, chatting people up like a politician,” Levenson said with a chuckle. “He had clearly been isolated for so long. And now he didn’t have to be, because his sight was back.”
During another trip to Perquin, a woman and her young son brought her aging father to the clinic to have his cataracts removed. After the surgery was successfully completed and his eyesight was restored, his daughter elatedly grabbed her son and began to dance around the room with him. Levenson asked why she was so happy that her father could see.
“Don’t you see?” she answered. “Now that his grandfather can see, my son can go to school!”
Levenson believes that her response contains a valuable lesson about blindness in the developing world. In poor, ill-served urban and rural areas, blindness is often an issue that affects the community as a whole. Children must often miss school, or even drop out, so that they can care for a visually impaired older family member. A productive individual who is stricken with blindness may also lose his or her livelihood, thus depriving the community of his or her skills and industry. So restoring sight to someone does not just make his or her life better; it benefits the whole community.
With all of this in mind, Dr. Levenson remains committed to volunteering his time, energy, skills and money to SEE International’s expeditions worldwide. He is deeply aware of how blessed he is to live in a society where he has no trouble getting the eye care he needs. This awareness spurs him to serve others who do not have these advantages.
“It makes me realize how much more work there is to be done,” he said.
When asked if he thinks other doctors should volunteer internationally as well, he unhesitatingly said yes: “It reminds you of what it is that we do, on a very visceral, emotional level. It reminds you of how important and wonderful and rewarding the work that we do is. I know I feel lucky.”
— Stephen Bunnell is the communications coordinator for SEE International.