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David Geffen School of Medicine

UCLA Medical Alumni Bring the Miracle of Sight to People in the Developing World

  Dr. Harry S. Brown on an expedition to South America in the early 1980s
  Dr. Harry S. Brown on an expedition to South America in the early 1980s.
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Harry S. Brown.

Vision is one of life’s miracles, the ability to see those we love, beautiful scenery and a starry night sky. And there are the everyday things for which we depend on our eyesight: driving, going to the movies, reading or watching children play. People in the developed world with vision problems have many resources and new technologies to ensure that their quality of life is fulfilling, but in the developing world, blindness can mean the difference between life and death.

To address this challenge, more than 30 UCLA medical alumni are using their ophthalmological skills to bring sight to thousands of individuals worldwide. They travel on behalf of Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International, a Santa Barbara, California-based nonprofit humanitarian organization, to restore sight to the blind in underdeveloped countries.

SEE was founded in 1974 by Harry S. Brown, MD (RES ’70). During his training at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute (JSEI), Dr. Brown became interested in international ophthalmology and working with doctors with limited resources. After completing his training, he embarked upon an international expedition to experience firsthand the challenges faced by ophthalmologists in the developing world. He was accompanied by his wife, four children and his mother.

“I spent six months in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was assigned to the 100-bed St. John’s Eye Hospital,” Dr. Brown says. “I spent a month in the remote village of Kadi, India, working with the local eye surgeon. In 22 working days, we saw more than 1,000 patients, all of whom had devastating eye disease, and performed 76 surgeries during that time.”

Dr. Brown spent a month in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a volunteer specialist for Care Medico. Afterward, he traveled to nearly 10 countries, visiting with local ophthalmologists and touring schools for the blind and university medical centers.

While at JSEI, Dr. Brown met attending surgeon George Primbs, MD ’55 (RES ’61), clinical professor of ophthalmology, and they remained in contact.

Dr. George Primbs  
A Santa Barbara Vision Care Program patient is examined by Dr. George Primbs (right).
Photo: Valerie Walker.

In 1971, Dr. Brown began his private practice in Santa Barbara, and soon after started SEE. Almost 40 years later, the organization has more than 650 volunteer ophthalmic surgeons, from 75 different countries, who travel internationally to perform sight-restoration procedures. Supplies are donated by the ophthalmic industry.Since SEE’s inception, the organization has performed more than 400,000 sight-restoration procedures in more than 35 countries. In 2012, SEE International supported 10,208 sight-restoring surgeries around the world.

In 1993, SEE International recognized a need for a community program and created the Santa Barbara Vision Care Program (SBVCP). Led by Dr. Primbs, it provides comprehensive eye exams, glaucoma screenings, eyeglasses, medications and eye surgery at no cost to the patient. In 2012, it completed 22 sight-restoring procedures and provided eye care to 1,242 individuals in Santa Barbara County. SBVCP has been providing diabetic retinopathy screenings for its patients since 2005.

“I have dedicated my life to vision care,” Dr. Primbs says. “Restoring someone’s sight is a life-changing event. It is very gratifying to treat patients at SBVCP. Many of them have increased risk of suffering eye impairment, including blindness, and none of them have the resources to access private medical care. SBVCP is noble and necessary.”

Dorothy Khong, MD ’02 (RES ’06), who has a private practice in Oakland, California, participated on a 2010 SEE expedition to Vietnam after learning about the organization from a colleague. “The patients are so very grateful to be able to see again, and many of them have waited a long time for this,” Dr. Khong says. “SEE is a great organization for physicians to volunteer their time. You provide a service to people who need it the most, and, in return, you will have an unforgettable experience and meet wonderful people.”

Richard Yook, MD ’72 (RES ’77), is another Bruin SEE volunteer ophthalmologist. He practices at Northridge Ophthalmology Associates in Northridge, California. During the last decade, he has been on several international expeditions with the organization. SEE also offers surgical-technique training for manual cataract surgical removal at its headquarters in Santa Barbara,” he notes. “The skills learned in this course are utilized by surgeons, like me, while on expeditions. Cataract surgery can be a life-changing experience. People struggle to make a living when they can’t see. Restored vision makes a tremendous, positive impact on the quality of life for that individual, the family and the community,” Dr. Yook says.

“Life expectancy for the blind in most developing countries is usually less than half that of someone with eyesight,” notes Randal Avolio, president and CEO of SEE International. “These difficulties are compounded by the fact that a blind person is unable to contribute to his or her family income.”

For information on SEE International, go to: seeintl.org.


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