When Kevin Waltz, O.D., M.D., (Ophth UF ‘91), completed his first medical mission trip in 1997 to Honduras, he began a multi-decade journey that would stretch beyond physical — and often emotional — borders.
Waltz is a 1991 graduate of UF College of Medicine’s ophthalmology residency program. Following completion, he opened a private practice in Indianapolis. This series of events, along with his 4-month-old son’s diagnosis of cystic fibrosis in 1989, led him to realize that his circumstances had a great effect on his family’s ability to care for his son. At this point, he promised himself he would do ‘whatever he could’ to help others overcome their burdens.
He began traveling in earnest around the world on medical mission trips, offering his services as an eye surgeon. It wasn’t until that 1997 trip to Honduras where Waltz endured ‘the most difficult surgical experience’ of his life.
Waltz wrote about the experience in a 2021 article he authored for Cataract & Refractive Surgery Today. There, he wrote:
“The cataracts were black and too hard to cut with a scalpel on a Mayo stand. I had to relearn cataract surgery. The experience was scary but invigorating. Cataract surgery changed everyone of my patients’ lives for the better. I returned home exhausted but emotionally fulfilled.”
Because of his experiences as a resident, coupled with his extensive travels to Honduras, he has established the Ophthalmology Global Heath Service Learning fund. He hopes future generations of ophthalmologists can experience the same paradigm shift that led him to a lifetime of service and learning.
“I love going, but there is going to come a time when I have to stop,” Waltz said. “I’ve been going there and elsewhere in parallel with Eric Purdy, who was a year ahead of me at UF. We recognize that we need to make the transition to the next generation.”
Through this fund, Purdy, M.D., FAAO, (UF ‘90) and Waltz hope that they can jumpstart a transfer of knowledge by sharing their 30-plus years of experience. The goal is to bring three residents and one fellow every spring to the Caribbean (with Purdy), and Honduras (with Waltz).
But the scope of work for this program isn’t limited to sharpening would-be surgeons’ skill set.
“The scope of work is really to introduce the trainees to another world,” Waltz said.
They will complete surgeries, train other local physicians, and learn from the local surgeons. They will help people re-gain the gift of vision. But the larger purpose will be to introduce the surgeons in training to another way of thinking, and life in another country.
It’s important to Waltz that residents and fellows understand that it’s safe to travel to Central America, and that they challenge any preconceived beliefs.
Sonal Tuli, M.D., chair of the department of ophthalmology, recognizes the value of educating well-rounded eye surgeons through medical mission work.
“Thanks to Dr. Waltz’s generosity, our residents will have the opportunity to experience the fulfillment and gratification that comes with participating in global eye care,” Tuli said. “Besides the joy they will get from helping people in great need, they will also learn to provide high quality eye care within the constraints of extremely limited resources.”
While there are some ophthalmology programs that have traditionally sent students to India for surgical experience, Waltz notes that there isn’t one exactly like the program he and Purdy are working to build at UF.
With an expanded coterie of ophthalmologists in tow, Waltz anticipates local communities will also benefit from the additional resources. When he began this work, he recalled how he was responsible for multiple facets of surgery — such as pre-op and post-op care — over a span of four days, only completing 40 or 50 cases each year.
After securing quality equipment and clinical space, the practice is now able to complete several thousand cases — most of them completed by the local doctors.
“This program is associated with local doctors that we return back to frequently,” he said. “It supports their careers, their knowledge and their practices, so that they can become stronger and help their own people year-round.”
Waltz said that eventually his hope is for the group to ‘work ourselves out of a job.’
“If we’re successful in 10 or 20 years from now, we won’t need to go,” he said. “The surgeons in Central America will then go elsewhere, too, to share their knowledge and resources. My agreement with them is that I’ll make you the best surgeon in your country. The payback for that is you have to take care of a lot of people and teach your fellow ophthalmologist what you know.”
Both Tuli and Waltz recognize that this program is just the beginning. There is growing potential to collaborate with other institutions on their medical mission work, further strengthening the experience for residents, and the impact for communities abroad.
“We are very grateful to our amazing alumni who have given so generously of their time and money to create this unique experience for our residents,” Tuli said.
For now, the focus remains on growing support for the program and exposing trainees to medical mission work, with an eye on changing their worldview.
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