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Doctor gives patients free eye surgery

Dr. David Auerbach checks a cataract on patient Norma Smith, who received free surgery on Nov. 15.

Dr. David Auerbach checks a cataract on patient Norma Smith, who received free surgery on Nov. 15.

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Throughout his life, Todd Markham had his share of bad luck.

At 14 months old, he was stricken with polio in his legs, arms and back. Around age 6, he regained use of everything except his left leg, which was always in a brace. He broke his leg twice and spent two years unable to walk, and in August 2009, he was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes and went blind.

“The hardest thing for me was losing my eyesight,” he said. “Because then you just can’t do anything for yourself — you really become a burden.”

Around this time last year, the 62-year-old got back his “gift of sight,” paying nothing more than time to Dr. David Auerbach of Eye Physicians of Central Florida, for surgery that is usually more than $5,000.

“Of all the things I’ve been through, being able to see again was just, profound,” Markham said. “It’s just like experiencing a miracle — that’s what it feels like.”

Giving back

Markham is just one of the patients impacted by the free cataract surgery offered by Auerbach at the Maitland clinic through the Gift of Sight program that he started three years ago.

“It was just so beautiful to be able to see the limbs on the trees, and the leaves and you know, everything. I could see the individual blades of the grass,” he said. “It’s something that you really take advantage of every day when you’re out and about.”

The program was started for patients like Markham who have cataracts, the No. 1 cause of reversible blindness in the world, and cannot afford the surgery.

“It’s heartbreaking to see people come in on a daily basis with no insurance who need care,” Auerbach said. “So this is how I choose to give back.”

Seeing what was going on with the economy and how many patients without insurance need the 15-minute surgery, Auerbach created the program to offer 10 free surgeries to patients every November as his Thanksgiving gift.

“I heard of a doctor in Dallas doing this, and I said, ‘You know, this is great. This is a really good idea,’ ” Auerbach said. “And each year to see the expression of how grateful people are really makes this worthwhile.”

Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures in the United States, as the affliction affects nearly 22 million Americans. In fact, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, by age 80 more than half of all Americans have a cataract — and the surgery costs about $5,000 per eye.

Back on track

For 56-year-old Sanford resident Norma Smith, whose husband recently lost his job as an insurance adjuster, that price is unaffordable.

In March, Smith had a freak accident that sent her to the hospital and, seven months later, left her as one of the millions of Americans in need of a cataract surgery.

She was out fishing on the lake when her 9-year-old grandson’s hook, which he had been struggling to release from a lily pad, finally unhitched, swung back and struck her left eye. Smith was diagnosed with a detached retina and had to undergo a re-attachment surgery.

“They told me I would get a cataract,” she said. “But I thought it would be several years. I didn’t realize I’d get it seven months later.”

Since the incident, Smith has been uncomfortable driving long distances and driving at night, and she does not read as much as she used to.

Even watching the television is hard, she said, “because half of the screen I can’t see, and the other half I can.”

Five helped

Smith, who is the head of family ministries at First United Methodist Church in Sanford, had no idea how her life was going to get back to normal until one day a friend at her church told her about Auerbach’s program.

“It’s a wonderful program,” she said. “The people in the office, they think about it all year long, about who they are going to choose. They are the nicest people there. They really help you in any way they can.”

Auerbach performed five surgeries on Tuesday, Nov. 15, to the patients of this year’s program.

“I am very fortunate and lucky to be in the position I am in,” he said, “and this is what I’m doing to give back to my community.”

The surgery has an almost 100 percent success rate and usually patients are able to see within a day of its completion, all of them forever grateful to be able to see again — and for free.

“Somebody is guiding his hand … that’s all I can tell ya,” Markham said. “The guy’s got a gentle touch, you know? And I think that’s kind of magic in a doctor.”