STAMFORD, Conn. -- Stamford ophthalmologist Stephanie Becker travels annually on missions of medical mercy. Her recent trip to Honduras, in which she performed a remarkable 46 pro bono cataract surgeries in three days, will forever be one of her most memorable.
Becker traveled to the Roatan, one of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras with her 14-year-old daughter, Hannah. The trip in itself is noteworthy. As a surgical volunteer with SEE International, Becker paid all of her own expenses, bringing all the donated medical supplies and all the equipment needed to set up an "eye OR" and worked 15-hour days.
- Who : Dr. Stephanie Becker, Stamford
- What : Traveled to Honduras with her teenage daughter to perform pro bono cataract surgeries on patients
- Did you know? In 3 days, Becker performed 46 surgeries
Teaching her daughter, however, what living and medical conditions are like in Third World nations might be the biggest takeaway from the experience. In a time where so many teenagers are detached from purposeful contributions to society, Becker’s daughter has a clearer understanding and appreciation now of the hardships that so many face in impoverished nations.
“I wanted her to understand how lucky we are as Americans to have options,’’ Becker said. “I wanted her to know how lucky we are to live in an affluent country. Sure, we have a system that sometimes seems a bit broken. But it’s still wonderful. We have choices. We have healthcare. So many people don’t have any access to care. I wanted her to understand the importance of doing things for other people.”
Becker doesn’t merely talk the talk. She donates her time frequently as a physician based on Long Island but also gives back to her local community with fundraisers and events as the owner of The Loft Salon and Spa in Stamford. By bringing Hannah to Honduras, Becker is teaching early the next generation of volunteers how to help the less fortunate.
“When you do things for people, it starts to change your world view,’’ Becker said. “If you don’t show teens firsthand so that they see it for themselves, they can zone out and still be focused on their Instagram account somewhere. It’s a lesson they need to learn firsthand. You don’t need to be an ophthalmologist to help someone.”
What Becker and her daughter witnessed in Honduras was the dire need for adequate medical care. They left New York at 2 a.m. with five crates of medical supplies. “I told the woman at baggage check that none of them were overweight,’’ Becker said. “They were happy not to try to lift up the boxes in the middle of the night to weigh them! The last thing I wanted to do was pay for overweight baggage or have her try to figure out why I needed so many blades!”
They started work at 7:30 the following morning and patients were already lined up, waiting to undergo the procedure. Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE), an international organization similar to Doctors Without Borders, helps match volunteers with locations in need of assistance and facilitates arrangements for the trip. With Hannah’s support and a few other volunteers, Becker worked on patients over the next three days.
“SEE estimated we would do about 30 patients,’’ Becker said. “The numbers surprised me. In the United States, so many are fearful of having surgery. These patients couldn’t wait. We had patients who had surgery the first day and came back two days later and wanted to have the procedure done on their second eye.”
Becker said most of the patients were 100 percent blind from their cataracts. Besides limited medical facilities, many South American residents develop denser cataracts and at an earlier age due to sun exposure. “They can’t see anything,’’ Becker said. “For them to see clearly, it’s amazing to them. It’s a life-changing moment. It lets them re-enter the economy and it also helps others because when you take somebody out of the workforce, another person is also forced out to care for them.”
One of the ways in which Hannah helped was by donating the use of her iPhone flashlight so that her mother could continue to work when the power went out. There was no air conditioning, toilets didn’t always flush and the work was exhausting.
But for a mother and her daughter, who managed to slip in a few hours of beach time at the end of the final day, it was a bonding trip that will have lasting medical and emotional repercussions.
“It feels great that I got to do this with Hannah,’’ Becker said. “I want her to grow up to be a woman with strong ethics and that cares about others. I’m proud of her how hard she worked and how much she grew from this experience. These are the things that formative. I want her to grow up to be helpful to others and do good in the world.”