By Jennifer Kirby, managing editor
A few days ago, Jeffrey H. Levenson, MD, awoke to an onslaught of Facebook Messenger requests for his eye care services. The responsible party: the viral YouTube video “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time,” in which Dr. Levenson performs cataract surgeries, with content creator MrBeast (Jimmy Donaldson) footing the bill. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJ2ifmkGGus.) To date, the video has garnered 100 million views.
“I always believed that the day would come when we, as a species, would come to recognize the moral crime that is needless blindness, but I never thought it would come in the form of a 24-year-old YouTuber named MrBeast,” marvels the Jacksonville, Florida, ophthalmologist.
Dr. Levenson says he has championed the issue of preventable blindness for over 30 years through his participation in the ASCRS Foundation’s Operation Sight, his role as chief medical officer (CMO) of SEE International, by providing pro bono cataract surgery at his practice, and through a recent TED Talk (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPOkVZP0Z78), among other endeavors.
Here, Dr. Levenson discusses why cataract surgery is the “low-hanging fruit,” of ophthalmic charitable pursuits, its effect on staff, and the action steps colleagues can take to become involved in philanthropic cataract surgery.
Dr. Levenson says cataract surgery is an ideal charitable activity for ophthalmologists because it requires a one-time intervention that, “pretty much always works,” doesn’t require a long-term commitment to follow-up, isn’t costly (see below), and results in grateful patients.
“If you can get people who have 20/400 or worse vision and no health insurance to be able to see again, they’re going to be very happy,” he explains. “And I think MrBeast’s video illustrates that.”
Effect on Staff
He adds performing pro bono cataract surgery procedures invigorates his staff, which, he believes, has helped him to retain good people and avoid the current staffing shortages in ophthalmology.
“There’s a celebratory mood around restoring the sight of somebody who’s blind,” he explains. “Participating in these surgeries generates this sense of purpose and belonging in the staff that, over the course of a busy, long day, staff might not otherwise feel. And for this reason, it’s a cure for burnout in surgeons, too!”
For corneal physicians inspired by the video to become involved in philanthropic cataract surgery, Dr. Levenson recommends the following:
• Instruct front desk staff to give appointments to patients who don’t have health insurance. “Decide that if you are here on this earth to enhance sight, and if a blind person can’t afford the surgery, it is still your duty and privilege to care for them,” he emphasizes.
• Figure out the logistics. Dr. Levenson notes that, obviously, every cataract surgery can’t be free, but that those surgeons who perform a high-volume of the procedures can determine how many they can do in practice without pro bono procedures affecting the practice’s bottom line.
“I can do 30 surgeries in one week; if I don’t charge one or two of those patients, that doesn’t have a big effect on my bottom line,” he says.
Incidentally, Dr. Levenson says he performs free surgeries on recipients of the Gift of Sight program, who are either self-referred or referred from Vision is Priceless. He says all are North Florida residents who have substantial bilateral visual loss attributable to cataracts, earn less than 200% of the poverty level, and have no access to health insurance. Additionally, in his role as the CMO of SEE International, he says he travels several times a year overseas, where he says he performs the procedure on the world’s “poorest and blindest people.”
• Network. This involves contacting the surgery center and anesthesiologists with whom you regularly work to see whether they can pitch in financially, Dr. Levenson explains. He adds that reaching out to charitable organizations, such as the ones mentioned above, will also facilitate MD participation.
Wanted: Eye Surgeon
Regarding that influx of Facebook Messenger requests, Dr. Levenson says he is reviewing them and has talked to folks at organizations like Operation Sight, to match the patients with those organizations. In the meantime, he says he's hopeful that the viral video will generate donations to organizations who share his passion for ridding the world of needless blindness. CP