Dr. Richard Litwin cautions other ophthalmologists about a major risk associated with humanitarian eye care: “it’s addictive.” Dr. Litwin was first hooked after he demonstrated to a local doctor in south India a PC IOL procedure. That surgery resulted in the patient, a carpenter by trade, returning to gainful employment, and made clear to both doctors how powerful the gift of sight can be. Thirty-six years after that first trip, Dr. Litwin is still committed, and maybe a bit addicted, to helping educate and advocate for improved access to eye care worldwide.
Like many doctors providing humanitarian care, Dr. Litwin’s work followed a familiar arc: beginning with hands-on work and followed by a shift towards educating others. He began with high-volume cataract surgery mission trip to Nepal and India. Later, he came to realize he could be of even more effective if he focused on instructing local doctors on how to perform these vital procedures themselves. During that time, Dr. Litwin worked with the World Health Organization to design and launch what has become perhaps the most effective ophthalmic training program in the world, the Aravind Eye Care System. At this time in his storied career, he has now shifted his focus to diplomacy; advocating internationally on behalf of humanitarian eye care organizations.
Foundation Staff (FS): Is there a particular patient or trip that stands out?
Dr. Litwin (DL): Yes. Witnessing my first eye camp in Pondicherry, India. In a few days I saw a thousand patients cured of cataract by Dr. Venkataswamy. I saw the good that an ophthalmologist can do in area devoid of doctors. I was - hooked.
FS: How do you think the programs you have volunteered with have had an impact?
DL: In 1982, I introduced posterior chamber implants to Dr. Venkataswamy at the Aravind eye hospital in South India. Aurolab, the factory they built to make IOLs at prices affordable in India, now makes 10% of all the worlds implants and Aravind is the largest eye hospital complex in the world. Later I worked with Dr. Sanduk Ruit introducing IOLs in Nepal and used them in high mountain eye camps. With the Fred Hollows Foundation, Dr. Ruit has also built a factory to produce IOLs.
FS: What part of volunteering do you find most rewarding?
DL: Making close friends with ophthalmologists from around the world. Twelve years ago, we initiated an eye bank and corneal transplant service at the Vivekananda Hospital in Haldia and we now vacation in India every year with Subrha and Asim sil, the Haldia doctors and their son Jisu, who now runs an additional large Vivekananda hospital outside of Kolkata.
FS: What part of volunteering do you find most challenging?
DL: The challenge at age 82 is staying healthy enough to travel and visit eye hospitals all over India.
FS: Do you have any advice for a surgeon interested in beginning humanitarian eye care work?
DL: Do it! It’s exciting and enlarges your view of the world and your place in it. But watch out; it’s addictive.
To follow in Dr. Litwin’s footsteps and begin your volunteer journey, visit www.ascrsfoundation.org/volunteer