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Cataract Surgery
Video

A Visionary Collaboration: Dr. Levenson & Youtube Star, MrBeast join efforts to restore sight to 1000 people

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Dr. Jeff Levenson:

Hi, this is Dr. Jeff Levenson, I’m an ophthalmologist in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m on the board of a local charity called Vision is Priceless, and I’m the Chief Medical Officer of SEE International, an NGO based in Santa Barbara, California, that seeks to end needless blindness in the world by promoting cataract surgery for poor and blind people around the world.

Question:

How did you become involved with humanitarian work in ophthalmology, both locally and globally? What drove you to this work?

Dr. Jeff Levenson:

I think on the one hand, every ophthalmologist went into this field in part because he or she wanted to bring sight to people in need, and so I’ve always had a desire to bring sight to the blind, to do something important and biblical in my work here at home. But about 10 years ago, maybe 12 years ago now, I developed cataracts myself, and I slowly felt myself losing the ability to drive comfortably, and then read comfortably, and then found myself under an operating microscope having cataract surgery. And it was in the days after that that it really struck me how grateful I was to live in the United States, how desperate it must feel to be losing vision in places where access to cataract surgery is impossible. And it was in the months after my cataract surgery that I started traveling around the world learning the manual extra cap technique, and doing cataract surgery among poor people in need.

Question:

When did you become involved with SEE International? In what capacity?

Dr. Jeff Levenson:

It was 12 years ago, so it would’ve been 1998, more or less, and it was in the weeks after my own cataract surgery. I woke up every morning thinking, “What if I’d been born in El Salvador? What if I’d been born in the mountains of Peru?” I started going online, I started reading about access to cataract surgery, learned that there was this modification of our technique that’s called MSICS, or manual small incision cataract surgery, that enables us to do the surgery without expensive technology and instrumentation, at a cost of roughly $25 to $35 in consumables, in material costs. So all of a sudden, the 20 million people in the world who were completely blind from cataracts and unable to afford surgery, and the 200 million people in the world who had moderate or severe visual loss from cataracts and were unable to access surgery, suddenly had access.

There are roughly 700 million people in the world who live on less than $2 a day, there are roughly 2 billion people in the world who live on less than $5 a day, and for those people, the $2,000 cost of modern Western cataract surgery is utterly unimaginable. So cataract surgery has been modified in such a manner as to make it accessible to the world’s poorest people, and our job now is to find a way to deliver it to people most in need. 90% of all the blindness in the world occurs among the world’s poorest people.

Question:

Can you discuss how your working relationship with Mr. Beast came about? How did he learn about your humanitarian efforts in ophthalmology?

Dr. Jeff Levenson:

So about five years ago, I was deeply involved in the effort to promote cataract surgery among the world’s poorest people through SEE International, and I did a TED Talk talking about my own experience having had cataract surgery, and the pleasure I found in traveling around the world doing cataract surgery. The TED Talk went virtually nowhere. Over the course of five years, 11,000 people saw it, not 125 million who’ve seen the Mr. Beast talk, but 11,000.

It turned out though, that one of those 11,000 people was this kid named Jimmy Donaldson, who’s better known as Mr. Beast. He called me one afternoon about four months ago and he said, “Hey, Jeff, have you heard of me? I’m Mr. Beast.” And I said, “No.” He said, “I’m kind of a big deal on YouTube”, and he said, “I want to do free cataract surgery all around the world for a thousand people three weeks from now.” I’d never heard of him, and I thought the idea was ridiculous, and I almost hung up, but instead I said, “Hey, let me call you back.” And I googled him, and it turns out he’s got a hundred million followers on YouTube. He’s got YouTube properties valued at one and a half billion dollars. So I called him back that night and I said, “Let’s do this thing.” I said, “It’s going to be complicated. It’s going to be expensive.” He said, “I’ll pay whatever it costs.” And in the days after we put it all together.

SEE International had five trips scheduled in the ensuing month, and he sent his staff on all of those trips. I also called every homeless clinic and every free clinic in and around Jacksonville, and I found 40 patients right here in Florida, in Jacksonville, who were completely blind or nearly completely blind in both eyes from cataracts, who didn’t have access to insurance or the ability to pay for surgery. So Jimmy came down, Mr. Beast came down, we did those 40 cases together. We interviewed every patient before the surgery and again after the surgery, and then we watched every patient as we took off their patch in the moments after surgery and got this wonderful reveal. The miracle of cataract surgery just came to life over and over and over again.

The video came out at about a month ago, and it’s been viewed over 125 million times all around the world. So it’s perhaps the most effective public information campaign on cataracts in the history of the world, and it was a 24-year-old kid named Mr. Beast who put it all together, it’s remarkable. For 15 years, I’ve been screaming from the rooftops, “This is a solvable problem, we ought to be able to do something about it.” But nobody was listening, until somebody was. Hopefully we’ll get some traction, hopefully we can make a dent in this. As Mr. Beast mentions in the video, half of all the blindness in the world is people who need a 10-minute surgery.

Question:

Did you think that his goal of 1000 surgeries in such a short time was possible? What types of apprehension did you have going into this?

Dr. Jeff Levenson:

Fortunately, I work with this wonderful logistics company, better known as SEE International. It’s a humanitarian, non-government organization that provides cataract surgery around the world, and basically, it’s a logistics company. I called Don Bell, who’s the CEO, and I said, “Don, I’ve got this opportunity.” A few weeks went by and all of a sudden he had it all planned. These trips had been pre-established, and Mr. Beast was willing to send staff all around the world. He has a staff of 60 full-time people making his YouTube videos. So SEE put it together, and SEE specializes in putting trips like this together. They did a wonderful job of it, and a thousand people had surgery roughly three weeks after the first phone call.

I did the 40 surgeries here in Jacksonville, but there were a number of SEE volunteers all around the world who were involved. It’s worth noting every SEE trip has a visiting American doctor and a host doctor in the country where we’re visiting. So there were probably 10 doctors involved in doing the thousand surgeries in the five sites. Each doctor had at least one American visiting doctor and one host doctor. So it was a group effort by a great many committed people, that got a lot of attention and drew a lot of interest. The story has been covered by at least 60 different periodicals and TV shows and radio shows and podcasts that I’m aware of. So the audience isn’t just the 125 million people who’ve seen the Mr Beast video, but the people who saw it through Jimmy Kimmel, or CNN, or NBC, or BBC, or a hundred other media entities that took an interest in the problem.

Question:

What kind of behind the scenes work went into the logistics of setting up these surgeries? How did you find potential candidates?

Dr. Jeff Levenson:

Here in Jacksonville, I have this program we call Gift of Sight, where for 30 years, when people come in and they don’t have any insurance, and they have a bad cataract, I do it for free. We’ve set up a fund and we have a charity here, so when people come in, I do them. When Mr. Beast called, I didn’t have a single person, I don’t keep a waiting list, I don’t save them for Christmas, so I didn’t have a single person when he called. It’s a sad reflection on healthcare in the United States that I was able to find 40 blind people roughly over the course of two weeks just by sending out a message to people who might take an interest.

Roughly 16% of Floridians don’t have health insurance and therefore don’t have access to needed eyecare. Worldwide there are roughly a billion people without access to basic eyecare, 91 million of them are children. So it’s a sad fact that it’s not difficult to find people in need. I will add that I got a bunch of calls from periodicals in Europe who just couldn’t, and the reporters kept asking me the same question over and over again, they couldn’t get their head around the fact that there were people blind in the United States for need of cataract surgery. It was just such a stunning reflection of the nature of the American healthcare model that Europeans refused to believe it.

Question:

Did you expect the response to the video that it received? Do you think viewers/the general American public realized how many people face preventable blindness/vision loss due to lack of resources/access to healthcare?

Dr. Jeff Levenson:

I was not surprised that it caused a stir because I think most people do not know that half of all the blindness in the world is blindness that’s amenable to a 10-minute surgery, and that overseas that 10 minute surgery can be done for $25 or $50, consumable costs of $25 or $50. Even here in the United States, it’s the single, and I’m saying this without factual evidence, but I believe it to be true, the single most cost-effective of all medical interventions, certainly one of the most cost-effective of all medical interventions. Cataract surgery most often, almost always, works, and it’s a one-time cure for a blinding disease. So there’s very little that we can spend in terms of medical dollars that has as much impact as cataract surgery. And when the world heard that half of all the blindness in the world is amenable to a quick and easy and safe and inexpensive surgery, yeah, I think it surprised a lot of people, and I was not surprised to see that it did. It’s what I’ve been talking about for 15 years.

Question:

What would you like to say to other ophthalmologists thinking about volunteering in some capacity?

Dr. Jeff Levenson:

For me, doing this work is the purest expression of my best self. I love to do volunteer work. When I’m here in the United States, I do a lot of cataract surgery, but my wife teases me, she says, “I’m bringing sight to the blurry.” When I go overseas and people are blind, and they’ve been blind for years and years, I bring sight to the blind. So it’s a very different experience, and it’s a reminder, in the purest sense, of why we went into ophthalmology in the first place.

I run a busy practice, we have eight doctors and 70 staff, and over the course of any given day, it’s easy to get worn down by the details of managing a business, and managing a staff, and dealing with patients, and there’s nothing to bring me back to the purest expression of being an ophthalmologist, and the best reminder of it, there’s no better cure for burnout than doing surgery on somebody who’s blind just because you love doing it. So I’d recommend it to everybody. I think it’s therapeutic for me, it’s helpful to the patient, and it reminds me every day of why I do what I do, and gives me the energy and the strength and enthusiasm to do it again tomorrow.

 

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