Article Date: 9/1/2006

Why Giving Back Feels So Good

Experience diversity and find common ground through helping others.

Some 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.

In Palau, a volunteer examines a young boy at a school screening.

Forget 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. 

A 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 need.

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

An 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 Club.

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."

Ready For an Adventure?

Here are the web sites of some organizations that offer international eyecare missions:

■ Give the Gift of Sight

■ Optometry Giving Sight

■ Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity

■ The Lions Club International

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 in Thailand."

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 in Louisiana.

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!"

Dr. Hansra is Director of Eye Care at Luxottica. Send e-mail to

Optometric Management, Issue: September 2006