Ending Blindness in the World: A Spotlight on DCMS Member Dr. Jeffrey Levenson
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Posted by: DCMS
Marta lives in the mountains outside Bacolod, in the southern Philippines. 34 years old and the mother of a beautiful three year-old daughter, she’s blinded by cataracts. She spends her days waiting, in helplessness and darkness, dreaming of delivery. Unable to work or care for her children, she’s one of 16 million people in the world completely blinded by cataracts and unable to afford surgery.
Duval County Medical Society (DCMS) member Dr. Jeff Levenson spends his days as a practicing ophthalmologist, the lead physician of an 8-doctor Jacksonville based eye care group. Nights and weekends, though, he indulges Marta’s dream. As Chief Medical Officer of Santa Barbara-based nonprofit SEE International (www.SEEIntl.org), he’s working to reimagine and reinvent cataract surgery to make it accessible to Marta, and the millions of blind, poor people in the world like her.
In the United States, over 4 million cataract surgeries are performed each year. At a cost of about $2,000, cataract surgery is technologically advanced, nearly universally successful, and one of the most cost-effective and common of western medical interventions. But for the billions of people around the world who live on less than five dollars a day, for whom $2,000 is an unimaginable sum, cataracts are a different story: they’re cruel and relentless, far and away the leading cause of blindness in the world. Restoring their sight will require something more radical than bringing technology dependent, high cost surgery to the world’s poorest people; it will require a wholesale reinvention of the procedure. Remarkably, that’s happening.
About 15 years ago, collaborating on the brand-new Internet, eye surgeons in resource poor settings around the world started hacking cataract surgery. Reimagining it. What if, they said, we broadened and modified the incision? Could we pop the cataract out in one piece, and avoid the costly process of emulsifying it within the eye? And still make the incision sutureless? Bit by bit, they came to MSICS: manual, small incision cataract surgery. It takes 10 minutes, costs about $25, and works as well as its high-tech sister technique in low resource settings. What’s more, it’s better suited to the rock-hard advanced cataracts prevalent in the developing world than western techniques, which were developed to treat softer, earlier cataracts.
At about that time, Levenson was facing his own set of challenges. Having spent his career as a cataract surgeon— having done perhaps 20,000 cases —he noticed a peculiarly familiar problem: he was losing vision, to cataracts. Reading became difficult. Driving became... an adventure. The day he looked across the room and couldn’t recognize his wife, he knew the time had come.
Dr. Levenson’s surgery was uneventful, and his sight restored, but his life was forever changed. He started spending his evenings on the Internet, befriending African and Indian MSICS surgeons, learning the ins and outs of the technique in chat groups and on YouTube. And he started spending a few weeks each year in the poorer parts of the world, restoring sight to those in need.
Today, as Chief Medical Officer of SEE International, Dr. Levenson teaches the MSICS technique to doctors around the globe, and presides over SEE’s 200 expeditions to more than 50 countries each year. He’s delivered a TED Talk that shares the story of accessible cataract surgery with the world. You can watch at tedxsantabarbara.com/2017/jeffrey-levenson/. This October, he worked with his wife, Dr. Ilene Levenson, alongside the Philippine Medical Society of NE Florida on their mission to Bacolod, Philippines. While there, he met Marta and her family, and watched in wonder and gratitude as, after years of blindness, she opened her eyes and saw her daughter again, as if for the first time.
Ending needless blindness in the world won’t be easy. It will require the collaboration and dedicated efforts of governments, and NGO’s and industry and communities. But the path is clear, and the template in place. And DCMS member Dr. Jeff Levenson will work to see it with Marta and her daughter.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of MD Life Magazine.