Steven Anderson, MD ’92, wakes to the sound of roosters crowing outside his house, which is made largely of screen and is located in one of the world’s oldest rainforests. The ophthalmologist walks to work at Bethesda Hospital in West Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia, Monday through Thursday, and spends his day in clinic or surgery. On Fridays, he and his team travel by truck, boat, or sometimes a small plane to clinics in distant villages.
“We have trained a surgeon and a team of nurses who specialize in eye care,” he says. “We have a full-time eye clinic with an operating room and have developed an outreach program that provides free eye-screening services to remote villages in our region. A few times a year the eye team also conducts surgical outreach projects to even more remote locations where it would be difficult for patients to get to the hospital for care.”
More than four years ago, Dr. Anderson decided to sell his private practice in Minnesota and move his wife and three children to Indonesia so he could accept an invitation to help Bethesda Hospital build a new eye program. Since his arrival in 2008, he says his team has been blessed to see the creation of a quality program for the poor.
“Opportunities like this don’t come along every day,” he explains. “Making major changes in our lives, personally and professionally, to accept the invitation to develop the new eye program at Bethesda was a big decision for us. However, our family feels very fortunate to have this opportunity to live and work here and be a part of the efforts to serve the poor in this remote part of the world.”
GEM in the making
“According to the World Health Organization, there are about 40 million blind people in the world today, and 285 million visually disabled, 90 percent of whom live in the developing world,” says Anderson. “Of all the causes of blindness, cataract represents almost 50 percent of cases, which can be cured with a 10-minute operation. Eighty percent of all blindness is avoidable, preventable, or curable.”
Realizing that much more needed to be done to provide eye care in faraway places, Dr. Anderson founded Global Eye Mission (GEM), a US-based, non-profit organization that facilitates the development of long-term mission eye programs in underserved regions.
GEM is fully supported through donor contributions, primarily made by individuals. None of the foreign mission doctors receive a salary from the local hospitals where they serve.
With the help of ongoing funding and volunteers, GEM continues to grow, now with programs in Kenya, Tanzania, Gabon, Central Asia, Ecuador, and Peru, as well as having other partnerships around the world, such as in South Sudan and Burundi, Africa. While each is at a different stage of development, the combined GEM-affiliated programs examine an estimated 28,000 patients and perform 3,000 surgeries per year.
“We recognize the magnitude of the global situation regarding blindness is far beyond the ability of any one organization to address on its own,” says Anderson, who received the Outstanding Humanitarian Service Award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology in 2011. “However, we hope through strategic partnerships and an emphasis on long-term, reproducible solutions, we can leverage our efforts and resources to make significant contributions in the regions where we work and beyond.”
Solid medical grounding
Dr. Anderson graduated from Northwestern University Medical School in 1992. He then completed his ophthalmology residency at the University of Minnesota and headed to Bethesda Hospital.
“This was my first medical mission experience and through it I was able to see firsthand the great need for quality medical care in the developing world,” he explains.
He credits Northwestern for providing the solid medical foundation that has contributed to his current work.
“Patients in the developing world and in the U.S. who come to an eye clinic frequently have other non-ophthalmic systemic medical conditions as well. Having a solid general medical background helps in identifying and referring these patients for further treatment,” he says.
Even after Dr. Anderson entered a private practice in ophthalmology in 1996, and worked as a clinical instructor at the University of Minnesota and the VA Hospital in Minneapolis, he remained involved with Bethesda Hospital and several other short-term ophthalmology mission projects. Each year, he would dedicate two weeks to three months at a time serving the needy in other countries.
Back to the U.S.
Dr. Anderson and his family have come to appreciate the beauty of their rainforest setting. His wife home schools their three children, maintains their household, and helps host foreign guests to the hospital. His children enjoy climbing trees, swimming in a nearby jungle pool made from a dammed-up stream, and playing outside as they have “summer” weather 365 days per year.
“The people here are very warm and friendly and we have made many good friends. While there are complexities to living in a developing country, we find there is a simplicity which can be refreshing,” Anderson says. “For example, we eat three meals together daily as a family and we have limited Internet and no TV.”
With his children now ages 8, 10, and 13, Dr. Anderson plans to return to the United States in May 2013 to integrate back into private practice while continuing in a leadership role with Global Eye Mission. He will support the program in Indonesia with periodic visits as well as ongoing consulting and financial support. He also plans to increase his involvement with other GEM-affiliated programs.
“We are hopeful that the eye units we support will become examples for others to emulate and centers to teach principles that others can apply, thereby multiplying our efforts into the future,” he says.