Judith Simon is a world traveler: Mexico, Ghana, Nicaragua. But these journeys aren’t vacations.
The ophthalmologist travels to impoverished areas where health care doesn’t exist or isn’t available locally and performs cataract surgery for free.
In December, Simon — an associate with Monmouth Eye Care in Tinton Falls for four years — heads to Senegal. In July, she spent two weeks in Donkorkrom, Ghana, where she and a small health-care team examined 1,200 patients and distributed 400 pairs of eyeglasses. She also performed 45 surgeries, mostly for cataracts, Simon says.
“Cataracts are the largest cause of blindness in the world,” says Dr. Donald A. Macdonald, medical director of the Tinton Falls practice, who earlier this year accompanied Simon to Nicaragua.
Yet in Ghana, where most people lack health care or follow-up care, conditions are often severe by the time patients are seen by a doctor, Simon says.
“Only about one-fifth of the patients in Ghana can be helped,” Simon says. “Most have glaucoma or trauma (to the eye) or other problems.”
About 23 million people live in Ghana, she says. Poverty is endemic.
“The capital has paved roads, but other cities don’t. People live on the street there. They eat and live and work on the streets because they have no place else to live,” she says.
Life is similar elsewhere in Ghana.
“There are mainly dirt roads. Most people live in adobe huts. Electricity is spotty, off most of the time. They don’t have running water. They have to go to a well,” she says.
Offering medical care and restoring sight to people in such places is only part of the mission, Simon says.
“The second is to give them some hope that somebody cares, that they’re not forgotten. We also do health education and explain what’s happening to them,” she says.
Her global volunteerism began four years ago when she spent a week in Chiapas — the poorest part of Mexico, she says — with doctors who were providing free health care there. Six months later, she returned, accompanied by Dr. Tracey Lewis, also in the Tinton Falls practice.
The Ghana trips began in 2005, after she corresponded with Dr. John M. Cheatham, a Georgia doctor who provides Third World eye care through his family-funded Mathis Eye Foundation. He directed her to Dr. Robert Brown in South Carolina, who had been going for seven years to Africa, Asia and Central America. She accompanied Brown to Ghana in summer 2005 for two weeks, where they examined 1,700 people and did 80 surgeries, she says.
In November 2005, she and Lewis spent a week in Chiapas. In July 2006, Brown requested she organize her own Ghana group in order to offer more care. That month, her group saw 1,500 patients and did 40 surgeries.
Earlier this year, Simon also went to Nicaragua. Macdonald and his daughter Margaret, 19, accompanied her.
“I hadn’t really thought about these sorts of things until Dr. Lewis and Dr. Simon started doing it. I’m so inspired,” Macdonald says. “I’m so glad I’m becoming a part of it. Dr. Simon always leads the team. She gets some help from some of us, but she leads it. You should see what she puts together: these huge suitcases — implants, equipment, medications.”
The work is demanding on the missions.
“We work maybe from 8 (a.m.) to 6 (p.m.). But when it’s necessary, we’ll work until 9 p.m., including weekends,” Simon says. “We don’t take any days off to go sightseeing.”
“You could be the best cataract surgeon in the world, but you’re not working in the best situations,” Macdonald says. “It’s not as if you could go to the Third World and bring your technology. You have to use what works, and it’s limited.”
“In Donkorkrom, there’s a hospital. In Mexico, we were operating just in a room. We cleaned it but . . . it’s scary,” Simon says.
“The surgery Dr. Simon is doing is extraordinary because you’re relying on very few instruments, very little technology, and it has to be inexpensive,” Macdonald says.
“This is old-fashioned cataract surgery,” Simon says. “Doctors here (in the United States) don’t have experience with that now. We’ve been using a different technique here for 25 years. Doctors have to be trained in the old technique, but in a Third World country, there’s no place to train doctors.”
Mission team members pay their own way.
“These people are not all wealthy, but they pay for their own air fare. They pay for their own immunizations — immunizations cost $1,000 to go to Africa,” Macdonald says.
“Airfare is $1,800,” Simon adds.
Simon, who spends about $5,000 a year of her own money on the missions, and a friend, Dr. Bruce Mintz, have created the nonprofit Right to Sight and Health to help fund the trips.
But it’s the health care that matters, says Simon, who was born in Hungary and came to the United States in 1989 and also donates her skills locally.
“Dr. Simon is the ophthalmologist at the Parker (Family Health) Clinic in Red Bank. She speaks Spanish, totally volunteers,” Macdonald says.
“I think it’s not fair that some people have everything and some have nothing,” says Simon, whose husband, Gabor Simon, an anesthesiologist, has gone to Chiapas. They have two children: Dezso, 16, and Daniel, 13.