My uncle, who is also an ophthalmologist, frequently goes on humanitarian missions. He told me about a trip he was taking to the Brazilian Amazon, and I was so inspired that I decided I would join him. The mission was coordinated through the Federal University of Amazonas headquartered in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, on the banks of the Negro River in northern Brazil. Our medical team included me, my uncle, another doctor and two residents.
During our 24-hour journey down the Amazon River in the heart of the Brazilian rain forest, I thought about something my mother had once told me as a child, “Do what you love, and work will never be work.” These words resonated with me as I was surrounded by fertile greenery and the oceanic expanse of the Amazon River. I was at peace.
This being my first medical mission, I was unsure of what to expect, but I knew it would be demanding. We were headed to the small city of Parintins, where the natives are overall very healthy with a sound natural diet and plenty of exercise. It’s hard to imagine there are any downsides to growing up in the middle of such magnificent scenery, but the intense equatorial sun and the lack of UV-protecting eyewear means most adults develop cataracts. Cataracts are a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision and causes progressive loss of eyesight. Without their sight, the natives can lose the ability to provide for themselves and their family.
Prior to our arrival, a local ophthalmology resident screened patients and scheduled those with the worst cataracts for surgery. Once we reached our destination, we had three days to perform 300 cataract surgeries on those who had the most significant deterioration of their vision.
We brought some donated medical equipment with us, but what we had to work with was very basic compared to what we have in the United States. Their equipment is generations behind what I have become accustomed to, and that made our work even more challenging. For example, there was one surgical microscope where one ocular was always out of focus. We had to switch microscopes throughout the day to avoid getting a terrible headache.
What impressed me the most about the people we were helping was their resilience, humility, and the tremendous gratitude they showed. We had elderly frail men and women who traveled days downriver for their surgery. They waited patiently all day without being able to eat and without even so much as a whimper or complaint. After their eyesight was restored, they hugged us and invited us to dinner at their homes. It was so touching because we knew they had little if nothing to feed themselves, much less to share with us.
Although this mission was challenging, it was a humbling and extremely rewarding experience. It was mentally and physically exhausting, as we operated non-stop from 7 am until 10 pm with barely a break for a quick meal. Yet when it came time to leave, we saw that there were patients we could not get to, and we wished we had more time to help them all.
My mother was right: this is not work. On a daily basis, I get to help people by improving their vision. What my patients may not realize is that they help me just as much as I help them. The joy they experience when they can see and experience the world around them is the biggest reward I could ever ask for.
It bears repeating: Do what you love, and work will never be work.