I became a doctor to help people. It gives me great satisfaction to help people that don't have access to the care that we routinely give our patients in the United States. I enjoy teaching young physicians in the latest techniques. It is an amazing and fulfilling experience to go to different cultures and different countries to serve the less fortunate and to teach. I get far more out of the experience than I put in and come back a better person than I was when I left for the Mission. I self-funded the airfare and purchased many surgical instruments and equipment for the trip. The University of Guinea, Conakry provided lodging, food, and transportation in Guinea. SEE International, Alcon, Morcher, FCI, Microsurgical Technology, and Omneros donated surgical supplies, surgical instruments, and pharmaceuticals. The University of Guinea, Conakry purchased 6 sets of American surgical instruments. We brought 9 suitcases of equipment, instruments, and supplies to Guinea from Chicago. I gave 3 lectures about cataract surgery to the Residents and performed cataract surgery on needy patients. I received no financial compensation. This was my 13th International Mission and I plan to go on more in the future. I have gone on Missions to Vietnam, Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama previously.
Wilmette ophthalmologist with Skokie office takes 13th trip abroad to perform pro bono eye surgeries
Stuart Sondheimer, M.D., an ophthalmologist who lives in Wilmette, has spent the past 15 years taking trips abroad to help perform pro bono eye surgeries for those in need, as well as teach eye surgery procedures.
Sondheimer, a Chicago native with a practice based in Skokie, has traveled to multiple countries in Central America, Asia and West Africa performing cataract surgeries. The procedure removes cloudy areas of the normally clear lens inside the eye and replaces it with an artificial lens. Cataracts cause blurred vision and blindness in severe cases, but the condition is treatable through surgery, Sondheimer said. However, the procedure isn’t always available in other countries.
“There’s a lot of people that are needlessly blind and we can go over there and do surgeries and enable them to be able to see,” Sondheimer said. “It’s really a very wonderful and amazing thing that we can do.”
According to CEO of Surgical Eye Expeditions Donald Bell, there are 30 million needlessly blind people in the developing world who can be helped for life with the procedure, which costs about $50 and lasts only 15 minutes.
“It’s the most impactful of all medical interventions,” Bell said. “We won’t fix it all by ourselves, but we won’t stop trying.”
Sondheimer has traveled to El Salvador seven times, Honduras three times and once each to Vietnam, Panama and Guinea. He brings along with him supplies from the United States that include everything needed to perform surgeries. He said the medical teams set up pop-up clinics or see patients at local hospitals, depending on the location.
Sondheimer said the biggest challenge comes from adjusting to the new setting and going back to basics to help patients.
“In the United States, I walk into a million-dollar operating room and you have every supply known to man,” he said. “In these settings, you make do with what you’ve got.”
In the last trip to Guinea, his 13th service trip abroad, Sondheimer said he helped the team — which included volunteers Bonnie Lucas of Wilmette and Chasity Boske of Chicago alongside Maher Sokkah, M.D. of Nabeul, Tunisia — perform 95 surgeries in a week while also giving lectures to students at an area medical school and providing exams for 12 other patients.
Bell said the nonprofit’s mission only works if the education portion is included. He called Sondheimer a tremendous advocate and wonderful example of the work they do.
During his time abroad, Sondheimer learned that older techniques sometimes performed better for patients. This gave him the chance to learn from those he came to teach.
“Those of us that have gotten involved in this found it addicting and we just keep on going again and again,” he said. “It’s been a real joy and you always learn so much anywhere that you go.”
Several groups, including Surgical Eye Expeditions International and Eye Care International, help doctors like Sondheimer plan these trips and connect them with doctors abroad they can work alongside.
When Sondheimer and his wife travel to El Salvador as part of a larger group with Eye Care International, patients can come to get a wide range of eye care beyond the more intensive cataract surgery. These services include vision testing, prescription checks and other basic eye care. Some patients can even get artificial eyes and prescription glasses.
Tad MacDonnell, program director for Eye Care International, said volunteer groups serve on average 300 to 500 patients a day, with as many as 1,000 coming through to receive care. Of those patients, around 75 to 100 end up needing surgery.
“Every person that gets in the gate gets to see an optometrist,” MacDonnell said. “That may be the only time that some of this population will ever see an optometrist.”
“Many of the people are just so exhilarated they can see,” Sondheimer said. “To have someone who’s been blind to see their daughter for the first time in many years or see their grandchildren ... that’s been very rewarding.”
Sondheimer has no plans to stop but with his yearly service trip for 2023 come and gone, he still has some time before the next one.
“We’ll see what I plan next,” he said.