The 25-year-old college student suffered from debilitating bilateral cataracts that developed due to excessive teenage steroid use. For years, finances kept him from getting proper medical care. He finally found a volunteer ophthalmologist in his area who could perform the necessary cataract surgery.
As the physician removed the postsurgical eye shield, the patient opened his eyes to see his family gathered around. “Oh my god, that’s what my child looks like!” It was the first time the young father had seen his toddler with clear vision.
That physician was young ophthalmologist Sebastian B. Heersink, MD, an Alabama-based cataract and refractive surgeon. Each day, doctors like him provide care to eligible patients through EyeCare America (ECA), the Academy’s national public service program.
Since 1985, EyeCare America has been matching medically underserved individuals with local volunteer ophthalmologists to provide eye exams and care. More than 90 percent of this care is provided at no out-of-pocket cost to the patients.
Dr. Heersink is one of more than 6,000 volunteer ophthalmologists who have dedicated themselves to their communities through this program. He and his father, Marnix E. Heersink, MD, are featured in a new EyeCare America video about the program. In an interview with YO Info this month, he discusses his own experience with ECA, why he volunteered so early in his career, and how it offers a seamless, simple and easy way to improve the profession and make a giant impact on people’s lives.
YO Info: Has your volunteer work changed how you view yourself as a physician?
It definitely has changed my perspective, because you do get caught up in the daily routine of your practice. But when I see these ECA patients, it allows me to take a step back, feel grateful for the life that I have and experience their gratitude. And on a professional level, I get the opportunity to really marvel at some of the technologies that we as physicians now possess — the 10-minute surgery, for example, that can reinstate someone’s vision. You really get to view your life and your career through a different lens because of the ECA program.
YO Info: You come from a long line of ophthalmologists — a grandfather, father, two uncles and a sister. Why did you choose to become an ophthalmologist?
My father, Marnix E. Heersink, always seemed to enjoy what he was doing — he came home from work in good spirits, didn’t view his job as a burden and was always around to coach our little league games. One memory that really sticks out is walking through the grocery store with him and running into his patients. They would call out, “You changed my life! You made my life so much better! I don’t know what I would do without you!” This sense of gratitude was a significant part of what brought me into medicine. And, honestly, it’s also one of the best parts of ECA, because we are able to provide eye exams and sometimes life-changing services to people who otherwise would not be able to receive them.
YO Info: How did you first get involved with ECA?
My father started volunteering with ECA at its inception in 1985. For him, it was a terrific marriage of good service and helping out the local community. For me, it seemed like a natural fit for the same reasons. And making the decision was easy. There was already a long history of physician participation in ECA, and because the wheels had been rolling for decades, I could just step right in and get to work.
YO Info: Do you think there’s a misperception out there that volunteer work poses a challenge for the busy ophthalmologist?
Yes, and this is an important point. Joining ECA is not a time sink — you receive all of the positive benefits of patient interaction and volunteer service without spending your time on bureaucracy or obtaining visas and vaccinations to travel the globe. You are able to do this from the comfort of your own office. All you have to do is express your interest, and ECA staff will take it from there. The barrier to participate is much lower than what most people would expect.
Dr. Heersink examines an EyeCare America patient.
And I honestly can’t think of a good reason why young ophthalmologists wouldn’t involve themselves in ECA. The time commitment and financial disincentives are very minimal. It’s a fantastic win-win. It helps the individual patients, it helps our reputations as physicians and it allows us as ophthalmologists to make a huge difference in someone’s life. Best of all, it’s a seamless process: a few extra patients a year, and you don’t notice a difference in your day or your practice otherwise. Meanwhile, the legwork is handled behind the scenes. ECA makes it easy for you to be the hero!
YO Info: In your experience, are there enough young ophthalmologists in the volunteer world today?
The volunteer spirit is what has made this country great, and no matter the numbers, it’s always good to have more people helping out. One of the biggest misperceptions I see regarding the new health care changes is that the need for volunteer work will be lessened because everyone will be receiving more adequate care from new health care programs and insurance plans. However, the reality is quite different. There will always be a tremendous underserved population with real medical needs that aren’t getting met.
All physicians that go into medicine have a volunteer spirit — we by nature want to help people. But with the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, we oftentimes don’t feel like we have time to take two weeks off or pay for a medical mission in a developing country. In reality, though, we as young ophthalmologists can have a tremendous impact without leaving the office, and that’s what ECA is set up to do — reach out to those people who need services and allow them to connect with you. And you still get the same satisfaction knowing that you helped someone who couldn’t receive these services otherwise … it’s truly profound.
Take the Leap, Make a Difference
The need for eye care continues to grow as the population ages. And as long-time ECA volunteers begin to retire, younger ophthalmologists have the opportunity to take charge of the largest public service program in American medicine. To date, the program has helped nearly 1.8 million people. Join this tremendous group of ophthalmologists and start your own EyeCare America story today!
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About the author: Mike Mott is a contributing writer for YO Info and a former assistant editor for EyeNet Magazine.