When Dr. Mark Silverberg was readying his family for their trip to Fiji, they had no idea how quickly plans would change. Unlike most vacations, the Santa Barbara–based ophthalmologist was taking his family on a medical expedition to the island of Vanua Levu. He’d volunteered for SEE International in the Santa Barbara area for 15 years, but this would be his first international expedition for the organization, which is based in Goleta but works on eyes around the world.
After about 20 hours of traveling, the Silverbergs began unpacking their luggage: eyedrops, an autorefractor, sutures, a variety of surgical instruments, and a big bag of lollipops for kids. Silverberg specializes in pediatric ophthalmology, the intricate and sometimes dangerous art of restoring sight to children stricken with blindness. He’d come prepared to operate on ailments such as strabismus (crossed eyes) and pterygium (a membrane that grows over the eye) but was ready to treat any other issues that came his way. Although the clinic in Fiji is staffed with medical professionals, they assumed Silverberg was bringing “his team” of trained professionals. But unbeknownst to his family, they were to become his team.
“This was like a spring break gone right,” explained Silverberg. “Originally we had planned for the family to do some volunteer work at the school, but they ended up working with me in the clinic.” As Silverberg screened patients, his wife, Sarice, kept records and dilated patients’ eyes. The kids helped with the intake forms, asking patients why they had come to see the doctor. They also manned the eye charts, pointing and asking patients, “What letter is this?” The majority of patrons spoke some English, but sometimes the kids relied on the clinic’s nurses for translation.
The clinic put out the word across the island about the American doctor, so patients walked, drove, took boats, and spent hours on the bus to be seen. There was such a large turnout that some people had to be turned away and ride the bus home, only to happily return the next morning.
“I wasn’t clicking on a computer and filling out insurance forms or any of the things that are so commonplace in today’s medicine,” explained Silverberg, who’s volunteered for SEE International for 15 years. “This was a blissful return as to why I entered medicine in the first place. I was able to do hands-on and very essential care and help people.”