A cataract and corneal surgeon, Soroosh Behshad, MD, MPH restores sight for his patients. The Emory University School of Medicine ophthalmologist says his mission to create sustainable eye care for underserved areas was born out of his experience growing up as a refugee.
“My mother was pregnant with me when my family escaped persecution for being members of the Baháʼí faith in Iran,” says Soroosh. “As a refugee in the United States, my family moved around a lot. Whether it was Alaska or Wisconsin, Chicago or Arizona, there were always so many people that helped our family. It was a part of our daily (life), accepting we received so much, and (knowing) that we had to give back and more to the community, country and world.”
Describing how his father, who was a physician in Iran, was helped by fellow American doctors, neighbors, and friends in the U.S. as he repeated training to be able to practice in his new country, Soroosh says as he grew, his family home had an open-door policy for anyone who needed help. Soroosh is now extending that practice on a global scale, his vision to help others informed by the community care and assistance he witnessed as a child.
“We are all citizens of the world. Yes, we come from different countries, but when it comes down to it, no matter your country, race, ethnic background, we’re ultimately all humans and when we can get to the point where we’re able to put those things aside, I think the world is going to be a much better place.”
As a citizen of the world, by day, Soroosh serves as chief of the Emory Eye Center at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and in his spare time, the 36-year-old commits to what he calls his “service to humanity” as the volunteer director of the eye clinic at Clarkston Community Health Center (CCHC), a free health clinic which provides care to thousands of immigrant, refugee and uninsured patients across the state of Georgia. It was following an international mission trip to Latin America while still in training that Soroosh discovered how he could multiply his service impact across the Southeast U.S. and internationally.
“During residency, I went on an international mission trip to Latin America that was life changing. We were able to help a lot of people, but it (also) changed my perspective. I realized it wasn’t a sustainable thing for surgeons to travel to countries, (because of) patient follow up and also, are we taking away potential increase in volume for local doctors? That became my primary goal getting involved in global ophthalmology, making a sustainable model and bringing in local healthcare workers and doctors to continue that work.”
Giving back to underserved areas by facilitating cataract and eye disease screening for hundreds of thousands of children and adults around the world, Soroosh also started to build the framework for a sustainable healthcare network, offering medical education and resident training for local medical providers. His clear-eyed service has touched thousands of lives in countries like Ethiopia, where Soroosh has been able to train local surgeons, and for Syrian refugees, where the situation on the ground in a Jordan refugee camp in 2017 was so bad, Soroosh says many children were affected by treatable causes of blindness due to a lack of vision screening and follow up care.
“We initially did work with Syrians on the ground but doctors and their hospitals got bombed, (we had to) look for other options. The Zaatari camp in Jordan is the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, and we started to provide care. There was a need for cataract surgeries for refugees because of a huge burden of blindness, but one thing that really stuck out (to us) was the lack of eye care for children. We were seeing children who had eye conditions who were not screened for, (and they) ended up with amblyopia (also known as lazy eye). There are studies that show this vision problem affects not only depth perception but more significantly, quality of life. That became our focus.”
As a former child refugee, Soroosh is bringing his volunteerism full circle by providing long-term care for refugee children who are struggling to survive alongside their families.
“We offered eye surgery to one child whose mother had told us he was being made fun of by children because of his health conditions. After surgery, he was able to go to school and play with his friends. Parents of patients tell us they thought the world had forgotten about them. They’ve been through so much, they’ve lost family members, their home, their lifestyle. They’ve really just lost hope in everything, but the fact that someone came from another country to offer them help was just a huge impact to really help them with depression and their feelings of loss. It’s given me this kind of shock of energy. You just want to throw yourself in and do more for these people.”
That energy is translating to changed lives across the globe, says Natalie Weil, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist at Emory University, who has traveled with Soroosh and witnessed his hands-on volunteerism.
“He’s made a really large impact on the quality of patients’ lives and their visions, both locally and globally,” says Natalie. “His enthusiasm is contagious. He gets inspired by helping people and he gets excited about it, and he’s able to get others to do the same. He treats each patient like his Persian grandmother. It’s really personal (for Soroosh), whether it’s in the office or in his free time.”
Soroosh says that it’s the promise of a better life that continues to charge his service spirit.
“Making a positive impact in my neighborhood, in my community and the world. Getting to hear about these kids that we’ve been providing eye care to, what they’re going to get to accomplish in life, then that will be the reward and that is when my work will be done. We stay in touch and follow these patients and hear about these stories. Hopefully that will give me more energy to keep work going and not stop.”
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Dr. Soroosh Behshad? Find local volunteer opportunities.