Donald Macdonald recently found himself negotiating with a local chief from Tamale, Ghana, to secure land on which to build an eye hospital. It’s perhaps an unusual role for an American ophthalmologist, but he has gotten to know the region well during several medical-service trips there. Since 2004, Macdonald has performed small-incision cataract surgeries free of charge during multiple trips to Africa, as well as Asia and Central America. His full-time job is serving as medical director of Monmouth Eye Care in Tinton Falls, N.J.
“It’s one of the few diseases that you can go to Africa and make a big impact,” Macdonald says, noting that eye care is often neglected in a part of the world that of necessity must prioritize the treatment of infectious diseases, including HIV. Cataracts are responsible for blindness in some nine million Africans, he says, but in most cases, the condition is treatable. In addition, thanks to a suture-free procedure that doesn’t demand high-tech instruments, it’s affordable: in Ghana, the total cost of surgery to clear one eye is $35. That’s borne by the nonprofit Macdonald cofounded, Right to Sight and Health, which also provides medical professionals and nonmedical volunteers to do the work.
Recently, Macdonald pledged $100,000 to create the Global Health Experiential Learning Fund at Geisel’s Center for Health Equity. The endowed fund will support medical students’ service learning work abroad at one of Geisel’s partner locations, such as Rwanda, Tanzania, or Kosovo. The Center for Health Equity assists students in engaging deeply with medically underserved communities and provides mentorship in both domestic and global health work.
The eye hospital in Tamale, Ghana, that Macdonald is helping to found, will be modeled on India’s Aravind eye hospitals, which offer a tiered system of payments. For now, when he’s in Ghana, Macdonald sets up clinics wherever he can find space. With his colleagues, he’s also been training local doctors, who often lack the expertise needed to diagnose and treat cataracts and other eye disorders.
In addition to his international work, Macdonald is just as emphatic about students and health professionals helping out at home, something he does on a regular basis at the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank, N.J. There, he offers free routine eye exams and specialized care, including surgery, to its 10,000 uninsured patients.
“The more of us who do this kind of work, the bigger the impact we will have in alleviating the suffering of so many,” he adds.
Author: Sarah Zobel
Sarah Zobel is a Vermont writer and editor who focuses primarily on stories about health, education, housing, and homelessness.