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Retirement on Hold: 22 Mission Trips in 11 Years

Vanik.jpgAs Philip Vanik, MD '60, approached retirement in 1997, thoughts of travel and playing rounds of golf swirled through his mind. But then he received a phone call from a College of Medicine classmate, and his plans for a life of nothing but leisure would have to slow down a little.

Tom Bates, MD '60, an ophthalmologist from Florida, suggested that his former college roommate join him in volunteering for Vision Health International (VHI), a nonprofit organization that provides medical, surgical and educational services free of charge to underserved populations in Latin America and South America.

VHI, which recruits ophthalmologists, optometrists, registered nurses and clinic personnel for biennial one-week field programs, was in need of an anesthesiologist. Since 1985, VHI has performed more than 5,000 sight-restoring and life-altering surgeries, such as the removal of cataracts and the treatment of strabismus, and handed out tens of thousands of eyeglasses.

As an anesthesiologist, Dr. Vanik mainly worked at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, where dozens of operations for strabismus are performed a week. The common procedure is done at hospitals across the nation, so very few people in the United States have crossed eyes.

"Tom asked if I wanted to come along," says Dr. Vanik, who was 63 at the time. "I only had one year before retirement, so I said OK. I asked if my wife, Jean, could come along, too, and he said ‘of course.' "

Over a period of 11 years, Dr. Vanik and Jean, a former nurse, had gone on 22 mission trips to such places at the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru.

"I always laughed when one of my friends would ask if I took my golf clubs because he'd heard that there were very nice golf courses wherever we were," says Dr. Vanik, of Dublin, Ohio. "But, we had no time for play – just work, eat, sleep."

"Some people were totally blind and would never have seen again without VHI," Dr. Vanik explains. "Children with crossed eyes were shunned. As adults they couldn't hold a job or get married. They essentially were shut in their homes. You can't imagine the look on the parents' faces when they saw their children with straight eyes. Their whole world changed."

The Vanik's first trip with VHI was to the Dominican Republic, a Spanish-speaking nation in the Caribbean where economic disparities are vast.

"We were bussed two hours away from the city, where there was no ophthalmologist and where people were too poor to get to the big city," he recalls. "We arrived Saturday and set up our equipment Sunday. People were already gathering in line around the hospital. Some had been there three or four days before being seen. It was the same scenario wherever we went."

The VHI team is first invited by the host country. "The city has to have a hospital with clinical space and three operating rooms for us to work."

Vanik was impressed by the efficiency of work. "The crew worked long hours very well together. We made very good friends. I think that's what happens when you work for a cause."

The Vaniks are fully retired now, spending time between going to the movies, socializing at the recreation center and playing rounds of golf.

In hindsight, he realizes that mission work never felt like "work."

"I'm only sorry I didn't start it sooner," Dr. Vanick adds.