Ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, looks on as an elderly mother sees her daughter for the first time in many years after receiving free cataract surgery.
The joy cannot be contained when an elderly mother, previously blinded by cataracts, sees her adult daughter for the first time in many years. Mother and daughter smile, then weep. There isn’t a dry eye in this makeshift operating room in the Philippines as mom marvels at how much her little girl has grown.
“She still thought of her as a young person, unchanged,” says ophthalmologist Sara Jones-Gomberg, M’80, who performed the free cataract surgery in March 2014 to restore the mother’s vision. “It was an incredible experience.”
But it’s one that almost didn’t happen.
The mother had arrived at the clinic scared and unsure of the procedure. She was hot and hadn’t eaten much. Like many of the patients, she had come a long way much earlier in the day to be evaluated for the surgery. Her daughter was worried that if her mother didn’t have the surgery that day, she wouldn’t go through with it — and she desperately wanted her mother to see again.
Jones-Gomberg was concerned, too, that the mother — understandably on edge after the long, hot wait — would be too restless for surgery in a setting without standard anesthesia. So they decided to wait one more day.
“We got her dinner and a place to stay the night,” Jones-Gomberg says, “and her daughter reviewed with her mom what to expect. She was the first patient in the morning to have surgery. She was rested and like a changed person. The surgery just went beautifully.”
So beautifully that the patient said she wanted to have the other eye operated on later that same day. No more fear. “We all felt like a happy family but this was our last day of surgery with many more patients waiting for a turn,” Jones-Gomberg says. “We promised to come back to perform the second eye surgery.”
It’s experiences like these that keep Jones-Gomberg going back to the Philippines, where she has traveled seven times since 2005, performing as many as 15 surgeries a day with a team of two to three doctors, including a local physician. She’s also treated patients in Bangladesh, India, Laos, Mexico, Peru and Tibet.
“In some of these countries, they simply accept that nothing can be done to restore their vision. But when suddenly it is, it’s like night and day — from sitting in the corner of their home and growing useless to suddenly becoming a contributing member of the family,” Jones-Gomberg says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better profession than giving back vision. You do something to help people but you receive such a good feeling for yourself. In some ways, it’s a little bit selfish. I’m so fortunate to have had my education at MCV and become a physician. A number of things came together and now I have a gift. To not share it would be such a shame.”
Back in her California home, Jones-Gomberg shares the gift of sight with patients at Kaiser Permanente in the Antelope Valley as a partner emeritus and at the High Desert Regional Medical Center of Los Angeles County. She previously spent 27 years as a partner physician in Panorama City and Santa Clarita Kaiser Permanente but moved to provide care to an underserved population that previously had to travel as far as 60 miles for ophthalmological services.
Caring for the less fortunate, and treating her patients as friends, is a running theme of Jones-Gomberg’s career.
“It’s something inside of me that I wouldn’t be able to change,” she says. “I talk to patients about their family, their concerns, their social life. I do think part of the responsibility as a caregiver is to look at the whole person, not just the eye.
“My sense of patient care began in my years at MCV and the way the students cared for one another. I do think our class was a special class. We didn’t rely on competitiveness. We actually worked together.”
Jones-Gomberg arrived on the MCV Campus at age 28, after earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics. She even spent a few years teaching math prior to medical school. Yet influential people in her life, including her family physician, encouraged her to become a doctor, noting the increasing presence of math in medicine.
She’s especially grateful to Miles Hench, Ph.D., former dean of admissions in the medical school, and oncologist Susan Mellette, M.D., who were instrumental in her path to becoming the caring physician she is today.
It was during her fourth-year rotation when she realized ophthalmology encompassed everything she loved about medicine: physics, mathematics, surgery and patient interaction.
“Every day I’m so thankful that I was given this experience,” Jones-Gomberg says. “In some ways, I was probably a gamble on MCV’s part. I hope I’ve shown it was well worth the gamble. MCV gave me the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.”
By Polly Roberts