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An Eye-Opening Journey

It is not uncommon for the average American to experience a decline in vision acuity with age. Generally, a quick trip to the ophthalmologist will help to diagnose the problem, provide any necessary surgeries or treatment and rule out serious disorders. Unfortunately, 90% of the people who suffer from blindness live in developing countries, where medical treatment is not readily available. 80% of the 37 million worldwide cases of blindness are either treatable or avoidable altogether. Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International is a nonprofit organization with the main goal of restoring vision to disadvantaged blind people. SEE sends American ophthalmologists to developing countries, in order to provide them with medical care and surgeries that would not otherwise be available to them.

SEE volunteer Dr. Mark Drabkin, a Sacramento ophthalmologist and Davis Resident, has restored vision to people in Nepal, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ghana and the Philippines. Last month, he traveled to Vietnam, where he worked with Vietnamese surgeons to perform approximately 150 vision-restoring surgeries. “We mainly performed cataract removal surgeries,” stated Dr Drabkin. “About 50% of blindness cases are due to cataracts. The process to remove them takes only 15 to 30 minutes and the patients don’t require much follow-up.” He compared cataracts on the lens of an eye to mud on a window. “As you age,” he explained, “The lens gets cloudy. Cataract surgery replaces the window by taking the lens out and inserting an artificial one. If the rest of the eye is healthy, the patient will see perfectly afterwards.”

Dr. Drabkin stressed that the SEE organization is a vital component to each of these trips. The organization provides all of the supplies and equipment in order to make it easier on the volunteer doctors. When possible, SEE provides lasting impact by donating equipment to the developing countries. After an expedition in the Philippines, the team left behind an autoclave machine. This machine heats medical equipment under pressure, ensuring all surgical tools are fully sterilized before use. In addition, SEE maintains the connections and relationships with the doctors and health care systems of the developing countries.

Dr. Drabkin’s travels with SEE have allowed him to observe the diverse forms of medical care around the globe. “It is fascinating to see how people with less resources and money are able to do medicine so well,” he said. “Doctors in Nepal have perfected surgery with limited resources. They do a great job.” In countries such as Nepal, doctors must perform cataract surgeries with a 20-cent blade; this same procedure is done in America with a $40-50 blade. Dr. Drabkin learns the techniques and methods used by doctors in Nepal and passes them on to doctors in other countries, such as Nicaragua, that have yet to develop a structured surgical system.

The SEE organization has impacted the lives of over 380,000 people through vision restoration procedures. “It is extremely rewarding to witness the reactions of people who are able to see for the first time in years…” said Dr. Drabkin. “…It is so easy to make such an immense impact on so many lives, which is why it was important to me to get involved in the first place.”

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