Ophthalmologist Jeff Levenson ’80 estimates that he’s performed over 30,000 cataract surgeries in his career. But it was his own relatively mild cataracts and routine surgery in 2009 that awakened him to the problem of needless blindless.
“I wasn’t yet blind. I wasn’t yet disabled. But it was a stunning reawakening to wake up the morning after surgery to see how blue the sky was and how bright the smiles were,” Levenson says.
After his surgery, Levenson set out to share that experience with the 200 million needlessly blind people worldwide who can’t afford the $2,000 surgery that cured Levenson’s cataracts.
He began working with SEE International, a global nonprofit dedicated to ending cataracts worldwide. SEE trained him in manual small-incision cataract surgery (MSICS), a relatively new technique pioneered by doctors in developing nations.
Unlike the expensive technique used in the U.S. to liquify soft cataracts early in their development, MSICS pulls out the mature, hardened cataracts doctors more often see in poorer countries. In a TEDx talk five years ago, Levenson showed a photo of the expensive equipment he uses for cataract surgery in the U.S. and then a photo of the simple tools he uses overseas.
Watch Jeff Levenson ’80’s TEDx Talk about ending preventable blindness
“The fascinating thing is that when I was training 40 years ago, we used to make a huge incision and we would pop the cataract out in one piece,” Levenson says, adding that doctors across the world are repurposing this technique in “an act of genius — of creative genius.”
For the most part, SEE’s doctors don’t perform the surgery themselves. Instead, they develop partnerships and infrastructure with doctors worldwide who rely on MSICS. Levenson says the doctors he works with overseas are far better at the surgery than he is.
“My goal is to enable them. To go over to them, to bring the materials, to support them, to help them on the things I can help them on,” he explained.
Levenson, who is now chief medical officer for SEE, drew international media attention this year after world-famous YouTube star MrBeast featured him in a video. MrBeast sponsored 1,000 free cataract surgeries for patients in the U.S. and across the globe.
MrBeast boasts 136 million YouTube subscribers, and Levenson’s video has now been viewed roughly 117 million times. In the days following its release, Levenson heard from numerous media outlets covering the story, including CNN and BBC.
“It wasn’t the mainstream media that was driving the story. It was a 24-year-old YouTuber, and the mainstream media followed along,” Levenson says.
The project drew some criticism from those who called it “performative philanthropy.” But Levenson rejects the criticism, arguing that MrBeast drew much-needed attention to needless blindless.
“What if he had called me up and we had done 1,000 surgeries and didn’t tell a soul?” Levenson asked. “Because of his celebrity, 100,000 people logged onto the SEE website afterwards. He brought awareness to a problem.”
Beyond the awareness he’s raised, Levenson says — and MrBeast’s video made clear — that “it’s stunning to behold” how cataract surgery has the power to restore the childlike intensity of senses to older people.
“I sometimes wonder how as middle-aged people, we live in a muted world,” Levenson says. “It reminds you of how stunningly beautiful the world is.”
Watch MrBeast’s video, featuring Jeff Levenson ’80, about performing 1,000 cataract surgeries around the world: