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Posted: June 16, 2014

Think tank expert: Russ Burcham

Best described as "enlightened"

Esty Atlas

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.

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

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Readers Respond

This man is amazing, but he is far from the only one. May I invite you and anyone else to any of the 65 clubs including 3200 Rotarians - business people - in the metro area? You will find his like there many many times over, and they will all be glad to acquaint you with heart-warming and life-changing opportunities to offer Rotary Service Above Self around the world and here at home. For a list of clubs and their meeting times, go to By Diana Smith on 2014 06 16
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