Only in Lawrence: Dr. Scott Hickman, giving sight to the blind

Dr. Scott Hickman, an ophthalmologist based in Lawrence, recently returned from a 10-day medical expedition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Practicing eye care near the intersection of Sixth and Maine streets, Lawrence ophthalmologist Dr. Scott Hickman has all the benefits of modern technology.

In the field, however, it’s just him, his patients and the mosquitoes.

“Here, if there’s a surgical complication, you can call the cavalry in. You can call the retina doctor in Kansas City or the cornea doctor in Kansas City or consult with your colleagues,” he said. “But if you have a complication there… there’s no cavalry.”

This July, Hickman, 45, embarked on a 10-day medical expedition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his seventh journey of the sort, but his first to such a region so plagued with domestic turmoil, government corruption and medical problems.

“I traveled all through Africa in my 20s, but the Congo is something I’ve never experienced before,” he said. “It’s like chaos in the streets. Everywhere we drove we had a soldier with us to protect us, and I’ve never had that before.”

The trip to the Congo, the city of Kinshasa to be precise, was a project coordinated by Surgical Eye Expeditions International and the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, Hickman said, and it was the first of its kind.

In Kinshasa, Hickman and internationally renowned Namibian ophthalmologist Dr. Helena Ndume worked alongside local medical professionals in the Biamba Marie Hospital, largely operating on local residents who are either living with impaired eyesight due to cataracts or have gone completely blind from the disease.

“Cataracts are a cloudy lens inside the eyeball, just behind the colored part of the eye,” Hickman said. “It should be like looking through clear glass, but with cataracts it’s like apple juice. And there were ones in Africa that were just black.”

Worldwide more than 25 million people have gone blind from cataracts, Hickman said. Often the very treatable disease runs rampant in developing areas because of lack of resources, medical knowledge and proper nutrition.

In his time traveling abroad, Hickman estimates he’s performed more than 150 cataract surgeries. To put that number in perspective, he said Ndume has performed more than 30,000.

While companies like SEE International provide for logistics and supplies, the rest of each trip is generally done as an out-of-pocket expense for the doctor, Hickman said. For his most recent expedition, however, NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, who is also a native of the Congo and president and chairman of his own foundation, paid for Hickman’s plane ticket.

A Lawrence native, Hickman spent two years in the Peace Corps, earned his medical degree from the University of Hawaii, completed his internship in internal medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City-Montefiore Medical Center — while in New York he met his wife, Ayako, and the couple recently celebrated their 10th anniversary — and he completed his residency in ophthalmology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

While Hickman was completing his residency, Dr. Bill White said he recognized something special.

“It’s not everybody that goes into ophthalmology that has been a Peace Corps volunteer,” White said. “When I worked with him as a resident I found out he speaks French and asked if he planned on doing any work in the developing world. I said, ‘You’d be a tremendous asset to our team both medically and communication-wise.'”

During Hickman’s residency, the pair traveled to Haiti twice as a part of the Northwest Haiti Christian Medical Mission, Hickman said, plus a third time after his residency.

“That’s what kind of got my appetite going,” Hickman said.

“That really gave him the bug,” White agreed. “He’s a very altruistic guy to start off with, and that just fanned the flame. And I think his time in the Peace Corps probably taught him a lot about people and compassion and the patience it takes to get things done outside the Western Hemisphere.”

In the Congo, patience was the name of the game, said Randal Avolio, president and CEO of SEE international.

The first day on site Hickman and Ndume decided they wanted to re-screen all 250 patients in line for surgery, Avolio said. With electrical problems, less-than-optimal surgical conditions and inexperienced supporting medical staff, it wasn’t clear whether the two doctors were going to be able to complete as many surgeries as they wanted.

But Hickman’s faith and compassion persisted.

“The first day we were screening patients, and Scott sat down with his very first with a smile on his face and a kind demeanor. He had such a warmth in the way he was using the French translator and communicating,” he said. “And the last patient, at nine or 10 that night, he had the same smile, the same calm demeanor. I was really kind of awestruck with how much he brought to the table.”

After the screenings the first day of surgical work yielded a grand total of three completed patients for a surgery that should typically take between 15 and 20 minutes, Hickman said. The last day of surgery yielded more than 30.

“There were 107 patients that had their eyesight restored, and I couldn’t say more wonderful things about it,” Aviolo said. “Scott was an absolute joy to be around.”

While his next trip is scheduled in March to Kolkata in India, Hickman said he wants to work his way up to two or three trips a year. Eventually the goal is to find a surgeon with ‘good hands,’ someone he can teach and who can continue giving sight to the blind in his absence.

“I’d like to be able to find an ophthalmologist, like in Africa, that you can teach how to do the surgery. Teach them how to do it safely and how to make a living off it. How to charge the people who can pay and not the people who can’t, so they can become self-sufficient,” Hickman said.

Each time Hickman travels abroad, his wife, Ayako, who is “relentlessly supportive” picks up the slack on the home front, White said.

The couple have three children, ranging in age from 4 to 9.

“Behind every person who has a family that does this kind of work is someone else at home who is working harder because they’re out in the field,” he said.

Along with the support of his family, Hickman said much of his motivation to work abroad comes from the experience itself and a desire to help his fellow man.

“I grew up in Lawrence, and once in a while I want to get out and do something else. It’s an adventure,” he said. “And some of it is trying to do good things, trying to be a better person.”

Discussing his set of skills, humanity and attitude in the face of adversity, Aviolo said he has no doubt Hickman has much to offer the world, whether he’s operating in Lawrence or in a far-flung land.

“When all the equipment broke and staff at the hospital, although incredible people, hadn’t done these types of surgeries before… I don’t know,” he said. “But I really believe that the team looked at this as their own little Apollo 13 moment and said ‘I think this can be our finest hour.'”