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Tzedakah Takes Flight

January 9, 2013 By:
Elyse Glickman | JE Feature
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Eye on the prize: Dr. Richard LeVine on the job as a Flying Doctor of Mercy.

Many children dream of growing up to become a superhero capable of performing the most remarkable, life-changing good deeds for others around the world.

In his 27-year career, Cliffside Park, N.J.-based, University of Pennsylvania-educated Dr. Rich­ard LeVine by chance — and through the goodness of his heart — became a hero to hundreds of people in real life.
 
Beyond LeVine’s desire to become involved with a charity, he notes that the opportunity to join the ranks of Flying Doctors of Mercy helped him live out his fantasy of flying in the cockpit of a plane. The small aircraft that carried him and other physicians to remote El Fuerte, Mexico, in 2009 enabled him to do just that.
 
However, he stresses, it was the reality of this experience, touching so many lives, that not only stayed with him, but prompt­ed him to return again last year, with his youngest teen­­age son in tow to serve as his Spanish-speaking surgical assistant.
 
“I had been looking for an opportunity to use my surgical skills for a charitable endeavor and initially looked at Doctors Without Borders,” LeVine recalls.
 
“That, in turn, led me to find Flying Doctors of Mercy, especially as I happened to know by reputation Dr. Richard Villase­nor, the ophthalmologist supervising the clinic. Not long after I contacted him and expressed my interest in performing sight-saving surgeries in the clinic four years ago, we made ar­range­­ments and I was off for six life-changing days in 2009.”
 
LeVine’s presence at the El Fuerte Clinic was welcome, as there was a marked desperate need for eye specialists. In the rural section of Mexico where LeVine was dispatched, there is virtually no access to medical services for hundreds of miles.
 
Though he had previous experience doing monthly volunteer shifts at a surgical clinic of a Philadelphia-area hospital, he says the immersion in this special clinic truly and literally opened his eyes, not just to other doctors who shared his passion, but to the reality about how something as routine as an eye exam ends up being a luxury for many people, both in Mexico and the United States.
 
“The interesting thing about the El Fuerte clinic is that it has capabilities and equipment that rival many hospital clinics in North America because the man­ufacturers who supply the hospitals made charitable donations to support and supply the clinic,” he notes. “I think this in part makes me appreciate the skills I learned over the years, and leverage them in a charitable way that makes enormous difference in the lives of people who are desperate, often blind and who have never been to any kind of doctor in their lives. 
 
“You often don’t have the opportunity to make such an impact in somebody’s life,” with the promise of “sometimes com­plete­ly restoring eyesight.” 
 
The clinic advertises its avail­ability in Mexico on the radio and on fliers several weeks before the clinics open. This attracts hundreds of people who come from as far away as three to seven hundred miles. 
 
“You are getting people from all over southern Mexico,” he recounts. “We had people arrive on a horse with their grand abuela (grandmother). We had people arriving on farm tractors towing a wagon full of hay with several generations of a family. We have had patients bring their mobile taco stand with them to show their gratitude by serving us fresh tacos made on the spot at lunch. 
 
“One woman who came to us had to save for two years just to get the bus fare to get herself from Tijuana, about 600 miles away. We arranged for her to stay at a local hotel at our expense and paid her bus fare back.”
 
Though the patient crush could be daunting and the work challenging, LeVine regarded the experience as a working vacation in the sense that the experience can emotionally re-energize a physician who may feel run down with the daily repetition and grind of practice.
 
“An opportunity like this to perform tzedakah can refresh one’s mind and spirit,” he emphasizes. “The satisfaction you get out of this is impossible to describe.”
 
The experience has also given LeVine a fresh look at the strengths and weaknesses of the American medical system, especially with so many patients he encounters at the local clinics in poor urban areas.
 
“In my own neck of the woods in New Jersey, I am continually surprised by how many people I see who are either indigent or medically illiterate who have had their access to care restricted due to limited finances or they don’t understand something,” he says. 
 
“They have illnesses more commonly associated with those occurring in remote corners of Mexico. Fact is, however, you do see these third-world-type diseases in your own country, in places like West Philadelphia, because people do not take care of their eyes. They do not have essential information, or lack the finances.”
 
For this very reason, his most recent trip as a Flying Doctor of Mercy this past year will probably not be his last philanthropic journey. In fact, he and his wife — a gynecologist with professional ties to the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing — are discussing a future trip to Botswana to provide services to that population.
 
Doctors, nurses, EMTs and other professionals interested in donating services can visit: www.ligainternational.org.

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