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Sacramento eye doctor restores sight in Vietnam

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In Vietnam, even when you’re in a room with air conditioning, you’re soaked with sweat within five minutes. When the temperature’s in the ’90s every day, and even the Vietnamese are telling you that they can’t stand the heat, you know you’re in for it.

So, imagine this intense heat and the equally intense accompanying sweat. Imagine unfamiliar sights and sounds all around you – the pandemonium of Saigon, the capital of Vietnam, a major city in Southeast Asia. Maybe you sweat a little bit more in this new unfamiliar territory.

With all of this firmly planted in your mind, now imagine performing a surgery on one of the most delicate parts of the human body, the eye, to restore sight to a person who hasn’t been able to work and has been dependent on a family member or friend for all of their needs. Nervous yet?

Dr. Mark Drabkin, a Sacramento ophthalmologist, hasn’t just imagined it. He has lived it. And because of his incredible skill and expertise, he wasn’t nervous.

Drabkin recently returned from a trip to Saigon where he volunteered for Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International, performing sight-restoring surgeries for almost 200 people over four days with local Vietnamese doctors.
Blindness is an underlying cause of poverty and hunger in developing countries. The World Health Organization estimates that of the world’s 37 million blind people:
o 90 percent live in developing countries
o 80 percent of the cases are avoidable or treatable
o 48 percent are blind because of cataracts
Drabkin said a cataract-removal surgery usually takes him about 15 to 30 minutes to perform, though his best time was 13 minutes on one eye. Some doctors perform the surgery so regularly, they are able to restore sight in just three to five minutes.

Imagine. Sight restored in just five minutes. In the United States, we cannot imagine that something as easily taken care of as cataracts could tragically alter a person’s life. But in countries like Vietnam, it does.

“I’m so impressed by how resourceful and skilled the local doctors are in spite of a lack of what we refer to as ‘basic resources’ here,” Drabkin said. “By American standards, cataract-removal surgeries are quite cheap in Vietnam. However, most people in the country simply can’t afford them, so they live their entire lives handicapped by a condition that can be treated with one fairly quick procedure.

“It’s wonderful to be able go on trips with SEE to make a difference in not only the patients’ lives, but in the lives of their caretakers, who have been dramatically affected by blindness, even if they themselves can see,” he continued. “Now the caretaker can go back to school or hold a regular job and support themselves and their family. Now the caretaker can live a fuller, more productive life. We don’t think about the effects of blindness on an entire community, but many people around the world live it every single day.”

Most of the people Drabkin operated on were from provinces outside of Saigon. In the capital city, it costs about $300 to $400 to have cataracts removed, and there are plenty of eye doctors in Saigon to do it. But once you step out of the city, there are few ophthalmologists and people are poor.

To help fill this gap, Buddhist monks from outside Saigon gathered together people who needed the sight-restoring surgeries and took them to the capital so they could receive the care they needed from Drabkin and several Vietnamese doctors. With supplies from SEE International, Drabkin performed 30 cataract-removal operations in just four days.

Of course, Drabkin experienced some cultural challenges. He doesn’t speak Vietnamese and it’s a very difficult language, so he had to muddle through with his nine months of Vietnamese language lessons and a sense of humor.

He also remembers that his hosts were convinced he didn’t want to eat Vietnamese food, so for lunch he was graciously provided with KFC or Pizza Hut.

In the operating room, Drabkin experienced other cultural differences.

“The concept of patient privacy does not exist in Vietnam,” he said. “While I was performing surgeries, the next four to five people I was to operate on would be right in the operating room with us, watching the surgery being performed. The graciousness of the patients – and their resilience – to watch the surgery, to know what it looked like and then humbly submit to it themselves – they are willing to go through so much to have their sight back.”

Drabkin has been on several other volunteer trips with SEE International to Nepal, Ghana and the Philippines.

“It’s challenging each time – you have to adapt each time to a different system, different circumstances and each country’s available resources to give people back their sight,” he said. But at the end of the day, I get to see the reality of these countries, not just the picture-perfect view from a fancy resort. I experience the real people, in their struggles with blindness and other problems. It’s been said a thousand times, but it’s true: For every trip I go on, I get so much more out of it than I put into it.”

Disclosure: Marjorie Wass works in public relations for SEE International

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