A World of Vision
Stamford resident Scott Hamilton channels his wanderlust into medical missions focused on restoring sight
Stepping into the Explorers Club in the Upper East Side of Manhattan is like visiting a shrine to lived-to-tell-about-it travel, complete with a sled from a North Pole expedition, tusks framing a fireplace, a stuffed polar bear standing on its hind legs. It’s easy to picture these items in the faraway places from where they came, and the exploits implied by what they symbolize.
But observing the ease with which Scott Hamilton moves among these relics quickly sets imagined tales of adventure aside. A visitor since the 1970s, when Hamilton (now a member) began dropping by with his father, he shares recollections of circling the globe a few times over the decades (at least when he wasn’t making a living as an investment banker). Those jaunts weren’t to some mega resort poolside chair. They were more akin to a trip completed recently in Chile, when he traversed the country westward, from the Andes to the Pacific, in a kayak. “A life well-lived should have some adventure in it,” he reasons.
But lately Hamilton’s adrenaline is leading him in mostly one direction: on a mission to help curb blindness, which affects 285 million people, or about 4 percent of the population—according to the World Health Organization (WHO)—even though it’s a scourge that seems as treatable as it is widespread. Indeed, about 80 percent of sufferers, which includes those with impaired vision, can be cured, and sometimes with little more than a pair of cheap eyeglasses, says WHO. But there’s a catch. Most of those 285 million people live in remote areas of developing nations, where paved roads to transport doctors and equipment—most notably high-tech equipment—can be limited.
This is where Hamilton comes in.
Sure-footed in rugged back-country scenarios, but also, as a holder of an MBA degree, able to drum up funding at home, Hamilton has become a sort of a quarterback on the blindness issue, organizing well executed drives into places where other eye-focused charities can’t go. In impoverished, rugged Nepal, which Hamilton has visited about a dozen times in the past two decades, that particular expertise is paying off.
“Scott has great connections,” says Dr. Sanjay Kedhar, an ophthalmologist whose philanthropic group, Operation Restore Vision, organized cataract surgeries and other procedures on some recent Hamilton-organized Nepal trips. “He knows local people; he has local knowledge. The trips really wouldn’t have been a success without him.”
There are many countries that could benefit from Hamilton’s largesse; the New Canaan native has visited thirty-one of them, plus Antarctica, and has other planned destinations on the horizon. But on the blindness issue, Nepal seems particularly hard hit. About sixteen in 100 people had eye problems according to a survey done three decades ago, notes the Himalaya Eye Hospital, which was founded in 1993 to deal with the public health menace, though admittedly the situation has improved since then. Still, eye health is far from ideal in Nepal, experts say, on account of UV radiation on the country’s windswept plateau terrain, as well as poor nutrition.
For his part, Hamilton says that during his first visit to Nepal in 1993, it struck him how some communities looked as if they hadn’t changed much since prehistoric times. “There were all these waterfalls, and it was beautiful and green, sort of like a Shangri-la,” he says. “But when you got into the villages, there were stone huts and no modern tools, and you could see the depth of poverty.”
For that trip, which was to the high-altitude Ganesh Himal region, Hamilton tagged along with Himalayan HealthCare, a nonprofit offering generalized medical services. Later trips to the country were more in line with the kind of science driven odysseys Explorers Club members have historically undertaken. One, for instance, had Hamilton scaling Mount Everest with people from Yale and NASA, on a trek for biomedical research.
But it wasn’t until 2009, on a subsequent journey to Nepal, that Hamilton’s own eyes opened to how desperately eye care was needed, and what might be done about it. It happened during his honeymoon with wife Melissa. (Hamilton was married for the first time at fifty-five, which he sheepishly admits had a lot to do with his constant traveling.) In the mountainous Annapurna area, where some peaks top out at a breath-shortening 26,500 feet above sea level, they came across a dentist holding a free multiday clinic to check people’s teeth. Patients had streamed in to see him.
Hamilton was back in the country a year later to guide a pleasure trip, and the group included an ophthalmologist, Dr. Henry Goldstein from Pennsylvania. Having heard that locals wanted to get their eyes checked, and encouraged by what he had seen the dentist accomplish the year before, Hamilton asked Goldstein to spend a single day offering basic eye exams. Suddenly one day of care turned into five, as hundreds of locals and scores of Tibetan refugees asked to have their eyes checked. The team had to helicopter out instead of hiking, Hamilton says, because of the extra time spent there.
Before the helicopter landed, a passion was sparked. “I never set out to be a humanitarian,” Hamilton says. “But when you go to these places and you see a need that’s enormous, and you know that you can do something about it—because if you don’t do it, then nobody will do it—then, a light comes on.”
It would be another year, in the spring of 2011, before Hamilton’s revelation led to his first organized medical trip to Nepal’s Upper Mustang (pronounced moos-TANG) region, otherwise known as the Forbidden Kingdom. Accompanying him were doctors from the Himalaya Eye Hospital in Pokhara, who went from village to village rounding up patients for cataract surgery.
When he returned to the U.S., Hamilton began sitting in on seminars with medical students at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary (NYEEI) in downtown Manhattan, which put him in touch with Dr. Kedhar, of Operation Restore Vision and a member of the practice. At the time, the group was planning a medical mission to Egypt. But when the Arab Spring erupted, the group switched gears and that fall headed to Nepal instead. Once there, besides removing milky-white cataracts, the doctors taught their Nepalese counterparts how to stitch damaged eyes and treat glaucoma, so they could someday offer those kinds of services themselves.
This successful strategy—to teach procedures in addition to doing them—was one they repeated in a subsequent expedition last May; it distinguishes good eye charities from so-so ones, say some experts in the medical nonprofit field, who also criticize charities that essentially parachute in, fix eyes and then clear out. “It’s important to help the local economy and not put local doctors out of business,” says Rachel Turkel, the program manager for Unite For Sight, a thirteen-year-old group that works in Ghana, India and Honduras in support roles.
Based in New Haven, Unite For Sight has treated 1.6 million patients, 69,000 of whom have gotten their sight back through surgeries, Turkel says. “But there is room for more groups like this,” she adds. “Blindness is a big problem.”
Other groups, like Orbis International, which dispenses care from a DC-10 jet-turned-hospital, can’t really get into places unless they’re served by major runways, which makes the team from Operation Restore Vision and Hamilton vital.
For all his time on snowy mountaintops, Hamilton, who has a business degree from the University of Chicago and continues to work as an investment advisor, has a hard job on American soil too. "Ninety percent of the work takes place before you set foot in the country, like any expedition," says Hamilton.
Even though his trips are staffed by volunteers who must cover their own airfare, the Nepal expeditions still cost $25,000 for Jeeps, mules and a cook, among other expenses. Much backing comes from Dooley Intermed International, a Queens, New York-based nonprofit with ties to 1950s “jungle doctor” Thomas Dooley, whose humanitarian impulses came from Vietnam experiences. In the past, Dooley Intermed, where Hamilton has been on the board for years, has covered the cost of surgeries in Nepal—sometimes at a rate of $12 an eye— and is also expected to be a major benefactor going forward.
But other sponsors are needed. Jeff Blumenfeld, a Stamford-based public relations executive—and Explorers Club member—helped score complimentary red parkas from Sherpa Adventure Gear, an apparel company, for the 2013 expedition. Other backers have included Keeler Instruments, which makes ophthalmoscopes, and the Paul & Irene Bogoni Foundation.
In September, Hamilton took over the reins of Dooley Intermed from Dr. Verne Chaney, a friend of Hamilton’s from the Explorers Club who had run the group since its inception. Dooley Intermed soon pledged to sponsor yet another Operation Restore project in the Dominican Republic, which took place last month.
The nine-day visit, which offered a familiar combo of exams and surgery, was a bit more stationary, however, with a base of operations in the city of Santiago de los Caballeros. There the ten-member team also trained local ophthalmologists on how to deal with afflictions like glaucoma, and included hands-on demonstrations.
Rather uniquely, the doctors also tracked down and operated on a family who lives in the mountains near Haiti, whose members suffer from a rare hereditary blindness; Dr. Ronald Gentile, founder of Operation Restore Vision who was along for the trip, had discovered the genetic link while working on the family’s relatives here in the U.S.
In spite of all the progress, the trips can present their own challenges. The weather is unpredictable. Tools are battery-powered. The work conditions can be primitive. In Marpha, a village on an old trade route between India and Tibet, doctors had to wash their hands in a stone basin in the square, crouched in their scrubs. Even with guides, getting there can be grueling, as doctors plod upward and upward across rocky paths. “It was pretty intense travel, and I’ve done a lot of intense travel,” Dr. Travis Jenkins, a volunteer, says.
Once the doctors get down to business, patients’ cloudy lenses are replaced with artificial ones stashed in the doctors’ packs. Corneal trauma and retinal disease are also treated. Other patients are simply handed eyeglasses, so they can do needlework, as many make their own clothes. “Now that I can see, I will be able to feed myself,” says a patient in Visions of Mustang, a short documentary about the spring 2011 trip. (The award-winning film will be screened March 27 at the Ferguson Library.)
In his efforts, Dr. Jenkins says he was also able to emulate an idol, Geoff Tabin, an American doctor who, in many ways, paved the way for Hamilton’s work. An avid mountain climber who has scaled the Seven Summits—the highest points on all the continents—as well as an unclimbed face of Mount Everest, Dr. Tabin today runs the Himalayan Cataract Project, which has restored sight to hundreds of thousands of people in countries like Nepal, Pakistan and China since 1998.
Hamilton also gives credit to the monks who function as a communication network, spreading the news about his arrival, and easing fears about what it means, in a cell phone-starved, isolated land. “Put yourselves in their shoes. All of a sudden this group of strangers shows up, with bright lights and sharp knives,” Hamilton says. “I don’t think I would want to be at the front of that line.”
While Hamilton’s travels may now have a clear purpose, he hasn’t hung up his spurs for good. At press time, while putting together the medical trip to the Dominican Republic, plans also included a horseback trip across the Andes. Nothing major, he says, describing it as “oh, just a winter recreation type of thing.” Sounds like an adventure.