Why Giving Back Feels So Good
Experience diversity and find common ground through helping others.
GULROOP HANSRA, O.D.
say life is cyclical. We begin our journey of optometric education with the end
of helping those in need in mind. We graduate facing the burden of debt and we labor
to pay-off student loans. Working for a better life for our families rightfully
becomes the epicenter of our lives. If we have time, we might ask ourselves, "Why
volunteer?" Many times it is a response evoked by an event, such as Hurricane Katrina,
or inspiration from friends in charitable organizations or mere dissatisfaction
with the mundane. Volunteering on any international humanitarian mission is a great
way to fill your heart by serving others, expand your clinical skills and learn
about other countries and cultures.
Palau, a volunteer examines a young boy at a school screening.
the tall tales
While the rewards of volunteering are great, for many, they may
be offset by certain worries or even prejudices about working outside your comfort
zone, which can cause a lot of trepidation prior to the expedition. These fears
are fostered by exaggerated tales of team members who don't bathe for days at a
time due to the lack of clean water. Former team members also tell legends of soiled
tee shirts melting off volunteers backs.
They repeatedly advised us to "heed the warnings" and pack a couple
of extra shirts and a bucket of Febreze to keep your clothes smelling, "mountain
fresh." Other folklore warns of insects the size of Cadillac Escalades, "But don't
worry they don't bite. It is the little critters that climb into your suitcase that
you have to be careful of they come back with you and infest your home."
Forget the stories. The only thing you will return home with is a "mission high"
and a rejuvenated spirit. Your patients will also benefit when you come back inspired.
Expect the unexpected
My last international mission (with Luxottica's Gift of Sight
program) was a trip to Encarnacion, Paraguay, a country that borders Brazil and
Argentina. Because I had never been to Para-guay, I was eager to taste the food,
meet the people and practice my Spanish. There was one thing I was anxious about
room assignments. I had been very fortunate in the past with accommodations,
and didn't know with whom I was going to spend the next two weeks. After checking
in to the hotel, I walked to my room, fearful of the idiosyncrasies of my future
"roomie." When I passed by the abandoned lounge, my olfactory senses took note of
a familiar aroma: Chinese food? Situated next door was a small restaurant called
Dona Susana's Comida China. Such a well-known smell in this unfamiliar place was
a delightful surprise. Upon entering the dimly lit hotel room, I rushed to survey
the bathroom. A flush toilet as well as a hot shower "Bonus!," I thought,
because you can't assume you'll always have these on missions. I plopped my bags
down and noted a digital camera, laptop and printer all set-up on the other bed.
According to the list I'd received, I was rooming with a Dale Freeberg, O.D. He
must be some kind of techy whiz kid. "Muy chévere! ("Very cool" in Espanol)
I thought, because I had lots of computer questions.
few seconds later, in walked Dr. Freeberg. He handed me a bottle of water as he
confessed to being a wanted man in several counties for snoring. We started chatting
about where we were from, children, alma mater, etc. I learned that Dr. Freeberg
had served on the California State Optometric Board, previously owned private practices,
and holsters up a mean retinoscope. (Rumor has it he can scope a chimpanzee at 40
feet away with accuracy up to a 12th of a diopter.) "Muy chévere!" I thought.
By the way, Dr. Freeberg is 80 years old! His devotion to mission
work has been a great inspiration to me.
Closer to home
We can fast-forward to the other side of the globe to view other
examples of volunteerism much closer to home. I visited the University of California
at Berkeley's "Suitcase Clinic," located inside a Presbyterian Church adjacent to
the campus. Waiting in the brisk cold for basic medical care was a group of underprivileged
men, women and children. After Mira Lal-chandani, an undergraduate student, and
Ed Revelli, O.D., the clinic director, warmly greeted me, they led me into a clinic
board meeting inside.
The spirit of volunteerism I found inside was absolutely overwhelming.
The room overflowed with people like a crowded bus in New Delhi. These were not
just optometry and medical students, but many undergraduate students from diverse
backgrounds. These were young folks, balancing the rigors of studies at one of the
most renowned universities in the world, yet still they had time to help those in
The Suitcase Clinic was founded in 1989 by a group of first-year
students from the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco campuses.
The program started out of a van and was later moved to the First Presbyterian Church
when the van ceased to function. Run by undergraduate students and supported by
the professional schools, the program includes the following services: optometric,
medical, chiropractic, dental, legal and hair cutting. They will even wash
your feet! Notices for the Suitcase Clinic, the Project Homeless Youth Connect,
the "Bags of Love" (food distribution) program, Habitat for Humanity and Volunteer
Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) mission trips are stapled all over campus,
amidst the sea of tie-dyed shirts and dreadlocks.
A young role model
optometry student at the University of California, Berkeley, performs a refraction.
John Michelson, a second-year optometry student also at UC Berkeley,
walked me through the steps he took to organize a VOSH trip to Palau, a group of
200 small islands southeast of the Philippines. There's no permanent eye health
care on the islands, so in December 2004, he flew to Palau to perform a site survey
for the clinic. He also solicited the Rotary Club, the Ministry of Health and the
Palau National Hospital to take part in the project.
As the news spread of John's mission to help the Palaun people,
the locals acted swiftly to show their appreciation for primary eye care. They agreed
the clinic would be held at the Palau Community College, the volunteers would stay
free at a hotel, and the locals would make arrangements so the clinicians could
enjoy the beauty of the island. John also coordinated the flight schedules, gathered
the necessary pharmaceutical supplies and packed donated glasses from the Lion's
A few months later, he returned to Palau with the VOSH volunteers.
The team consisted of four doctors and 13 students. In five days, they saw approximately
2,500 patients. They not only helped many first-time patients who needed vision
correction, but detected a great deal of pathology, including age-related macular
degeneration, cataracts, macular holes, glaucoma, etc. They diagnosed many people
who never knew they were diabetic, potentially saving not only their vision, but
their lives as well. John was especially touched as he told me the story of how
they saved the life of a woman in whom they diagnosed malignant hypertension after
a retinal fundus examination.
When I asked John what the trip meant for him as he moves forward
in his career, he replied that it had taught him to, "Deal with your patients as
real people. If I hadn't organized this trip, where would that woman with malignant
hypertension be now? It was definitely worth the effort."
From the top
Clinical professors such as Dean Dennis Levi and Dr. Ed Revelli
support and practice the cul-ture of volun-teerism and leadership at U.C. Berkeley.
Mr. Levi, a very bright and soft-spoken gentleman, is continuously searching for
new ways to improve public health.
"Vision is our most precious gift," he says, "and the School of
Optometry at UC Berkeley is committed to ensuring that high quality vision care
is available to all. It is this commitment to providing quality eye care to the
under-served that drives volunteerism at UC Berkeley, whether it is service to the
local homeless population, the victims of hurricane Katrina or the under-served
Dr. Revelli, the director of clinics, models the way for the students
and staff. He has for years helped facilitate the numerous ongoing volunteer programs
at the college. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina he recognized the desperate
need for eye health care and quickly assembled a team to help in the relief efforts
What drives volunteerism?
Eager to learn more about what motivates doctors to donate their
time to serve those in need, I recently caught up with my former roommate, Dr. Freeberg,
now a veteran of eight Gift of Sight missions. Dr. Freeberg, who was a successful
private practitioner in Hawthorne, Calif., for 45 years, has had an illustrious
career. He graduated in 1951 from the then Los Angeles College of Optometry (now
known as the Southern California College of Optometry), has been a member of the
American Optometric Association for 51 years and has held many prestigious positions.
He started his journey with Luxottica's Gift of Sight Organization
after filling out an application, while affiliated with Eyexam of California in
Culver City. Motivated by a passion to give back to the community, he has been on
eight missions. Dr. Freeberg described a typical two-week Gift of Sight mission:
"The missions are basically eight clinic days. We see more than
3,000 people each day! The missions are staffed with between five and seven optometrists
and 24 Luxottica associates. Typically we partner with the local Lions Club. According
to my calculations, for the eight missions I've been on, we have serviced more than
192,000 people; I have seen approximately 64,000 people."
The personal experiences we encounter on our missions further
feed the spirit of volunteerism. One of my most memor- able experiences was seeing
Dr. Freeberg perform a retinoscopy on a baby with nystagmus, in broad daylight in
a crowded gymnasium in Paraguay.
Dr. Freeberg told me his favorite memory: "In Paraguay, there
was an eight-year-old girl who had never had an eye exam. Her prescription was –5.00D
in both eyes. When I put on her new glasses, I just had to take a photograph of
the joy in her face. Then she came over and gave me a hug."
Get a fresh perspective
According to Dr. Freeberg, donating his time to the Gift of Sight
program has changed his view of corporate optometry. "In private practice, I had
to be a lawyer, an accountant, administrator, etc.," he explained. "Working in a
corporate setting, I just have to see patients. The last three years have been the
happiest of my professional life because of the GOS program. I enjoy working with
children and have been very rewarded. For the past eight years, most of my time
has been spent in a five-day-a-week position, which I have enjoyed immensely because
I can practice pure optometry with no administrative duties. It's also made me available
for the GOS missions in places like Bolivia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Romania,
Panama, Honduras, Ecuador and Cambodia."
I asked Dr. Freeberg if he plans to go on any other GOS missions
and he replied that he wasn't quite sure. After just returning from Ecuador last
Saturday, he said he needs to re- evaluate his body and maybe start slowing down
a bit. (In the next breath, he told me he was working five days next week!)
Working for a higher cause
Joe DeZenzo, the Executive Director of Luxottica's Gift of Sight
Foundation, has been recruiting optometry students and doctors to participate in
these charitable clinics at home as well as abroad. "It's very encouraging to see
people at diverse points in their career coming together to give the gift of sight,"
he says. "Whether it's doctors with as much experience as Dr. Freeberg or the students
who volunteer in our clinics, there's room for everyone to participate in giving
back to the community." (The Luxottica Gift of Sight Foundation expects to help
its five-millionth recipient this fall.)
People such as Dr. Freeberg and John Mickelson inspire us to become
ambassadors for eye care. Despite our age or whether we practice in a corporate
or a private setting, or any other distinction, we all practice optometry to help
the world see. Op- tometry is "muy chévere!"
Hansra is Director of Eye Care
at Luxottica. Send e-mail to email@example.com
Optometric Management, Issue: September 2006