2024 ASCRS Foundation Chang Crandall Award Announcement | ASCRS
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2024 ASCRS Foundation Chang Crandall Award Announcement

Martin Spencer, MD, selected as recipient of ASCRS Foundation Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award 

This year’s recipient of the ASCRS Foundation Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award is Martin Spencer, MD. 

Endowed by a generous gift from David and Victoria Chang, the ASCRS Foundation Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award was established in 2017 to honor and recognize outstanding humanitarian work in the field of cataract blindness and disability. The award is given annually to celebrate the charitable accomplishments of an individual or organization working in the United States or abroad. The recipient is recognized at the ASCRS Annual Meeting, and a $100,000 prize is donated in their honor to a charitable ophthalmic organization of their choice. In 2020, the Foundation’s highest honor was renamed the Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award to recognize Alan S. Crandall, MD's exemplary life and commitment to humanitarian service.

For many years, Dr. Spencer has worked closely with Seva Foundation  and Seva Canada  in Nepal and many other countries around the world. As a board member of both organizations, he prioritizes service quality, volume, and program sustainability. 

Dr. Spencer’s interest in ophthalmology began in medical school. “It came as a surprise to me. It wasn’t a lifelong ambition,” he said. “But once I was in practice, I always had the feeling of wanting to give back. I recognized that I’m very lucky to have been born a white male in a developed country.” Dr. Spencer also loved to travel, and from early on in his career, he was interested in volunteer work. After his residency, he traveled in Latin America and tried to do volunteer work but noted that plans were hard to arrange and often fell through. 

Dr. Spencer describes himself as a comprehensive ophthalmologist with a focus on cataract on Vancouver Island (where he is still in practice today). He first came across Seva at a meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology when he visited their booth. “I wrote to Seva, and they arranged for me to go to Nepal in 1987,” he said. “I spent 7 weeks there, and I was totally hooked.”

Seva Foundation co-founder Suzanne Gilbert, PhD, MPH, was with Spencer and his family on his first trip to Nepal. “It was instantly clear that Marty had a calling for this kind of work. His skills as an ophthalmologist were in great demand by Seva partners. They valued his clinical knowledge and also his versatility and positive attitude,” she said. “These attributes have made Marty a popular trainer-volunteer in at least a dozen countries. He has returned to Nepal at least 15 times!”

In his customarily humble way, Dr. Spencer noted, “Initially I was petrified. I didn’t know what I had to offer, but I discovered that it’s all about teaching. There is so much need there.” Back when Dr. Spencer started his volunteer work abroad, he said extracapsular surgery had become somewhat established and he had developed some instruments and techniques and was in a good position to teach. “I returned regularly to Nepal and India (Aravind Eye Hospital) where I led workshops to teach extracapsular and IOL surgery, as the standard in low-income countries at that time was intracapsular surgery and aphakic glasses.”

“People always ask me when I come home, “how many surgeries did you do?’” he said. “I measure my success by how much is done after I leave, not what I do while I’m there.” Teaching, he said, can make a lasting difference. With the number of people blind from cataracts in the world, Dr. Spencer said it would be hard to make a dent in this as an individual. It’s all about setting up programs and teaching, and that’s what Seva does, he said. “The goal is to make the eye hospitals self-sustaining so they can run on their own.” This includes not just surgical manpower, but all the infrastructure as well.

Seva Canada Program Director Ken Bassett, MD, remarked, “Few people are more revered by eyecare providers, particularly ophthalmologists, in Asia and Africa than Marty Spencer, who has worked tirelessly to help them to provide high-quality care to the people they serve. His work epitomizes international development with dignity, where his success is measured by their success, the growth of their dignity as professionals, long after he has gone home.”

Dr. Spencer added, “Whenever I go, I’m always a little bit anxious because you don’t know exactly what you’re going to encounter,” he said. “My goal is really to just raise the surgical quality to the next level, whatever that is, depending on what they’re doing.”

One important aspect of this work, Dr. Spencer said, is the instruments involved. “My instrument box I use for manual sutureless surgery, you can fit in your shirt pocket. You don’t need a ton of instruments,” he said. But again, he stressed that it’s all about being adaptable. You come into a situation, and if something is missing, you make the best of it. “I always bring along a couple boxes of instruments, but I want to make sure I’m not teaching something that they can’t do with local instruments or that we can provide for them.” Oftentimes, he said that some of the places he travels will have too many instruments, depending on what’s been donated. He always makes a point of using instruments that are multifunctional.  

Dr. Spencer’s continued commitment to new interventions was seen as recently as the COVID-19 lockdown. He joined Seva Foundation’s Medical Director Chundak Tenzing, MD, MPH, and staff member Samina Zamindar, DO, MS, as they developed virtual life-saving sessions on quality improvement and infection control. Dr. Spencer visited programs in India and Nepal in 2023 and has plans to travel to Madagascar in February. “I’m in contact with our program staff and partners. They suggest where I can go to help,” he said. 

Patients and surgeons in the countries he travels to are very grateful. “I think any ophthalmologist knows the appreciation that patients show,” he said. “There’s nothing like taking the patch off someone who had a mature cataract, particularly bilateral mature cataracts,” he said. 

Dr. Spencer has always placed a lot of emphasis on teaching in his volunteer work and has thought of it in terms of ripples in the ocean of blindness. “The ripples from teaching spread much further than any specific direct intervention.”

Dr. Spencer was “just dumbfounded” when finding out that he was selected as the recipient of the Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award. “I was not in a million years expecting this,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone was aware of my work with Seva. I’ve spoken at meetings, but they’re not usually huge audiences. I’m very honored and surprised.”

Seva, he said, is a Sanskrit word that means ‘service.’ “To me, it means service without expecting anything back,” he said. “I don’t expect people to say, ‘Oh, isn’t it nice what you’re doing.’ It’s icing on the cake and nice to get the recognition.” 

Dr. Spencer finds it gratifying hearing that others are interested in similar global work. “I’m happy to see how much interest there is now in global ophthalmology. When I first started, there were few people doing this kind of thing. Now, there are fellowships in it, which is wonderful.”

People always ask why there are so many more cataracts in these countries, he said. “There aren’t. It’s access and poverty. What we’re doing is social justice. There are many millions of people who shouldn’t be blind. I operate in Canada on people who can’t pass a vision test for driving, but in these other countries, people are going blind,” Dr. Spencer said, adding that he hopes his work and the awareness from the award lead to more people being able to help in the future.

The two best things about getting this award are getting more recognition for the field and the money that’s going to the Seva organizations, he said. 

Dr. Spencer has earmarked the financial prize to be split between Seva Canada and Seva Foundation efforts to strengthen eye program quality and sustainability. 

An active member of ASCRS, Dr. Spencer will offer two sessions on small-incision cataract surgery at the ASCRS Annual Meeting in Boston in April. 

He will also participate in the ASCRS Foundation’s symposium on Saturday, April 6, “Be the Change You Wish to See.” Those interested in meeting Dr. Spencer and hearing how you can join in being part of the solution for reducing blindness should be sure to attend.

To learn more about the Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award and recipients of the award, visit here.

Dr. Spencer operated on this woman who was blind with bilateral mature cataracts. Her husband found out about a camp that Seva was conducting. He led his wife – with their two children – and walked the 10 days it took to reach the camp in the foothills of Everest. Dr. Spencer and others had trekked in to set up camp. He didn’t know her story until after he’d operated on her and was told she’d never seen her younger boy. Dr. Spencer took this photo the day after her surgery.

On one of Dr. Spencer’s Tibet trips, he did an eye camp in a town called Chamdo. In conjunction with it, he taught three Tibetan ophthalmologists manual sutureless surgery, starting with a wet lab using pig eyes. One of the ophthalmologists, Dr. Dawa, wasn’t fully qualified. He turned out to be a fast learner and was thrilled with his first patient's surgery. The best part of the story, Dr. Spencer said, is that when he did more eye camps in Tibet two years later, he was told that Dr. Dawa had just done an eye camp in which he did 257 cataracts. He had also trained several other ophthalmologists. Here, he works with Dr. Spencer in a wet lab.

Dr. Spencer operates in an eye camp in a school in Nepal around 1988 or 1989.

Dr. Spencer in Chamdo, Tibet with a postop patient.

Dr. Spencer with staff and trainees at an eye camp in Nepal

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