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Think tank expert: Russ Burcham

How open is your heart?  What are you willing to do to change someone’s life thousands of miles away? While most of us are pre-occupied thinking of ways to improve our businesses or livelihoods, take a moment to consider, by what barometer do you measure your own talent or values? 

I decided to view this question from a different perspective by finding individuals who go above and beyond their busy everyday lives to purposefully and intentionally think of how they can make a meaningful difference in someone else’s life.  The criteria for this multi-part series of articles must involve marketing, public relations, communication and negotiation skills (key to any venture really); and in this case, it also involves thinking outside of this country.

Think Tank Expert #1 is Denver ophthalmologist, Dr. Russ Burcham.  “Enlightened” is the best word that describes this enthusiastic solo practitioner, father of six grown children and grandfather to eight.  What he’s been doing for 20 years not only takes great foresight; but you’re about to discover why he leaves his active ophthalmology practice to restore vision to children, teen-agers, moms, dads and the elderly, thousands of miles away from home.  

Last year, Panama ranked 5th among Latin American countries in terms of the Human Development Index, and 59th in the world. The World Bank states that one-half of all Panamanian children are poor.  And a significant number of children are born with congenital cataracts that eventually lead to severe vision impairment and blindness.

Dr. Burcham explains children are more difficult patients because in order to perform surgery, typically they need general anesthesia to remain still.  Not available here. Desperate parents and resourceful surgeons utilize oral valium with an injection under the eye which allows a 30-minute operating window.  “We’ve gotten awesome results on kids and that’s so gratifying to know they can now grow up with sight,” Burcham says.

For 20 years, the doctor, his wife Vicki and their growing medical teams have seen first-hand that the people they help barely have $1 to their name and hardly know where their next meal is coming from, but the minute word spreads of their return, optimism triumphs over daily challenges.

He first learned about this unusually high degree of blindness in 1996 at his church. Instead of just saying a prayer and going about his busy life, he asked his wife to look into travel arrangements. Together, they organized a medical humanitarian trip.

After talking to various missionaries, he discovered the huge number of people who had blinding cataracts, unable to see their own loved ones.  For this physician, the calling became crystal clear; the actual resources, not so much. Everything from medicine to operating equipment and treatment supplies fill their flight bags. It comes from donations or is out of pocket.

“When you’re not living just for yourself, unbelievable stuff happens that you would never dream,” he says. 

This philosophy has inspired annual medical missions since to perform cataract eye surgeries in Central America where a local library or small schoolhouse serve as a makeshift clinic for multiple operating tables.  And, every year, hundreds line up for his help.

“People literally walk for miles or come on horseback and last year, in a town called, Los Santos, we had 300-400 people every morning when we walked up to the clinic sitting there waiting for us.” 

Thanks to Spanish speaking missionaries on the ground in each location, the medical teams have grown substantially over two decades. They now perform 200-250 complimentary surgeries per trip in only five operating days. Thousands of lives have since been touched in ways that have made an indelible impact.


“A lady in her 30s was holding a baby in her arms, but was completely blind and couldn’t see her child.  She had such a hard time nursing her baby,” he recalls.  “I was able to give her a little bit of vision and that changed both of their lives,” Dr. Burcham says. 

He also remembers an older gentleman, about 65, who hadn’t seen his wife in at least six years.  Following cataract surgery, the man looked at his wife, and said, ‘I forgot how beautiful you were.’ There are now so many fond memories and experiences.

 “Especially with women, as soon as we remove the eye patch, they often take one look around and start to cry and hug you and point out what they can see, faces and colors, and they’ll start explaining how beautiful things are,” recalls the physician, adding, “I’ll never forget this one man, about 50, who had never seen his two youngest children…he got cataracts in his 40s, and after our surgery, he immediately jumped up to go find them.”

These are the rewards Burcham wouldn’t trade for anything.  He's aware that some people might call what he does an extreme sacrifice. He has a different perspective.

“How many people get to see a real miracle in their lifetime? Requests for more missions pour in constantly. If I had the funding, I could go every 2-3 months with a crew of people, now that I’ve established my connections,” he says with a broad smile. 

“Why Central America?” I asked.

“It’s fairly easy to get to there without a lot of jet lag so we can hit the ground running, and with our established contacts and more medical professionals willing to pay their way and raise money to get all the stuff there, we can get to more places more often,” he answered. 

Let’s rewind. All of this started with one Denver physician. It spread beyond Panama to Honduras, Mexico, Haiti, and Nicaragua. Now there are medical and dental teams, a pharmacy team, even a construction team that repairs whatever is needed in schools.  In countries where blindness is prevalent in rural villages and towns, the local governments cooperate with Spanish-speaking missionaries to allow these humanitarian missions. 

For this think tank expert, it’s all about his deep faith and a clear vision of what he wants his life to represent. Dr. Burcham admits, “It’s easy to lose sight of what you can really accomplish because of all of life’s distractions, but for me spiritually, I believe this life is not just about me, it’s what I choose to do with these years, and I want them to count.” 

More than 3,000 eye surgeries later, he is looking to return to Nicaragua in November if their government grants the medical team permission to enter; if not, next Jan. 23, they’ll be back in Panama. 

This example of resourcefulness could only be made possible through persistent public outreach, networking that overcomes language barriers, and a deep devotion to one’s true sense of purpose utilizing their professional skills. 

Do you know a Think Tank Expert?  I’m looking for other individuals who utilize their professional training to create a meaningful impact in different ways.  I’d love to hear from you.

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Esty Atlas

Esty Atlas is a four-time Emmy award-winning writer, specializing in leadership communications, media and public relations. 303-919-2425; email: estycreative@yahoo.com or www.estycreative.com

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