“Let’s Make Giving Boring”

We have all seen heartwarming pictures of hundreds of people lined up waiting patiently in front of a small, torn down building or hut bearing a huge sign reading, “Free Eye Camp, Doctors from the US providing free eye care.”

On the ground there is a lot of hustle and bustle. The host members, a bunch of traveling doctors and their staff, spend time setting up the equipment and figure out the logistics. The energy is palpable; smiles are big. Looking outside the wide-open windows and watching the line grow is like a shot of dopamine. It feels really good. We are making a difference. That is what life is about. Giving is living. Yes, that is exactly why we went to medical school. All those feelings multiply over the next few days as we serve the eye care needs of poor locals. It is priceless watching the surprised grateful look when a patient is able to see for the first time after years. Even more precious are the moments when a child wears a pair of glasses for the first time and smiles big, finally able to appreciate the beautiful colors of nature. Things start to wind down the third or the fourth day, but the dopamine rush continues. We count the number of patients we helped, and we feel proud. A lot of hugs and a lot of cheers. We post photos on FB and Instagram. The cycle of renewed dopamine hits continue from social media likes and comments. We fly back home. Our families and friends shower us with praises and the dopamine hit continues.

Back at the place where so much was happening just a few days prior, clean-up starts. There are many who keep on wandering in, hoping that they could be treated since they were not able to make it, only to find out the doctors had left. “When will the doctors be back?” they ask with obvious disappointment on their faces. Of course, no one knows. Some of the patients who received glasses are back trying to figure out if the glasses they received can be fixed to better fit their face, otherwise they are not able to use them. Some of the surgery patients are having trouble seeing and they have no idea what to do and nor does any of the people on the ground. Life returns to deprivation. A few are helped for sure but most of the inhabitants are still struggling with vision impairment as they were before the big Eye Camp.

The cost of these eye camps is astronomical. Usually it involves a group of ten to fifteen people traveling by air, room and board, equipment and finally the opportunity cost of missed work. A 2016 study published in Global Health estimated a cost of approximately $14k per doctor for a week of short-term mission work abroad. The total cost of US doctors traveling abroad to serve is in the billions. To put things in perspective, as per WHO vision report published in October 2019, the cost to help preventable vision impairment in the world is approximately $14.3 billion.

Imagine a world where all of us rethink how we serve patients in developing countries. What if we give up the instant gratification associated with dopamine and trade it with the unselfish, slow infusion of oxytocin? The cost of sending a local student to four years of medical school is approximately $30-40K, and two to three years of optometry school is approximately $10-15k. Each one of our short trips to offer eye care abroad could support education and training for many students who will return to serve their communities. True, our services are huge blessings to those in need and our expertise is cherished in these places, but our focus, as providers, truly needs to shift. Enabling adequate care and services to continue once we are gone should become and remain our foremost priority. No long lines. No excitement. No cheerful hugs. No selfish dopamine rush. Just boring oxytocin. Nonetheless, a true Eye Camp every day.