by Jazmine Ponce
photography by Jen Newman
Eyes. They are what we see with. They are our guides in our perceptions of life; they reflect our pain, sorrow and happiness. Every day we take for granted the gift of sight, to easily make an appointment if we need a new pair of glasses. But there are millions of people who cannot see, who wake up to fuzzy and blurred images all because there is no source of help.
But on hot and sticky days in selected third-world villages, long theme park like lines of people wait in anticipation. There is no ride at the end of these lines but, instead, relief brought to them by a healer known as “El Jefe” or “Dr. David” – the kind man who greets them with a jovial smile and eyes of concern. For Dr. David Krasnow, helping people is his way of life.
Being an optometrist and creating a worldwide foundation to help those in need was not Dr. Krasnow’s first priority. He says it was being able to graduate college and realize his potential. Though he graduated from the University of La Verne in 1969 with a B.S. in biology, he originally attended Boston University in Massachusetts, which had 40,000 students at the time. The choice to transfer to a California school populated with 800 students that offered a personable atmosphere was a great fit for him.
“At Boston University it took a week to register for my freshman classes. It was bewildering. And my freshman biology lecture had 500 students in it. It tended to be really impersonal; it was an atmosphere in which if you missed a class and asked for a makeup assignment from students, they would give you the wrong assignment just so they would have an edge. They gave you your grade point average up to three decimal places, and your ranking in class was out to three decimal places. It was cut throat.”
When he transferred to ULV he was on academic probation. “It wasn’t what I expected, but it turned out to be what I needed,” said a smiling Dr. Krasnow.
One of the first people whom he met and would later call his friend was Dr. Robert Neher, professor of biology, who, on their initial meeting, told Dr. Krasnow, “Let’s see what you can do.” Dr. Krasnow says he admired the way the College did not treat him like a number and treated him instead as part of the community. The atmosphere nurtured him so that he confidently launched into a profession with which he is immensely pleased. “The thing that impressed me about La Verne is that it’s a school whose philosophy is to give students a chance. Students who academically haven’t risen to their level of promise now have the grace to go at it a with a fresh slate. In my case, my high school grades were terrific, but my first year of college grades were terrible, so they said, ‘We’ll give him chance,'” says Dr. Krasnow.
He was able to raise his grade point average from a 1.6 to a 2.9, which took dedication and perseverance. He maintained a 3.5 in his major. While at La Verne College, he spent his free time running on the cross country team, managing the track team and starting the first karate team at the College. He also was a friend and classmate of ULV President Stephen Morgan. They both graduated in 1969 and still keep in touch. “He was a much more serious student than I was then; he even dressed like a college president then,” Dr. Krasnow says with a laugh.
Attending optometry school upon graduation was not Dr. Krasnow’s choice but his mother’s, who directed him to enroll in the Southern California School of Optometry. Though he initially was not thrilled about the school, he grew to enjoy it and received his B.S. in physiology optics in 1971 and became a doctor of optometry in 1973. He now has a practice in Beverly Hills. He later received in 1998 a master in public health from the executive program at UCLA. The University of La Verne invited him to serve as the 1998 commencement speaker at both the undergraduate and graduate ceremonies in 1998, where he was awarded a doctorate of humane letters. In 1998, he matriculated at the ULV School of Business and earned his MBA in 2000.
Dr. Krasnow received his first taste of volunteerism and service while a graduate student in the early 1970s. An organization called Project Concern invited him to assist in an eye clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, where he performed eye exams for orphans. “It blew me away. I was just, Wow!, this is really cool. At the time, I didn’t speak Spanish, but I just thought the fact you can actually help people was really cool, and I started doing more and more volunteer work.”
From that point on, he says he dedicated himself to working for a couple of different non-profit organizations in the 1970s. In the mid 1980s, he founded VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity). The organization serves a world-wide population and has chapters in several major cities around the country. Dr. Krasnow personally dedicates about two months a year traveling abroad for VOSH. The organization has been featured in the Los Angeles Times and on CNN. They specialize in South and Central America but include other countries, helping those who are unable to receive any sort of vision care. Programs exist in Thailand, the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil and Venezuela. Dr. Krasnow recently added programs in Peru, Chile and Cuba.
Through VOSH, Dr. Krasnow, along with other doctors, take trips that vary in size from six to 30 professional staff. He organizes as many as 50 volunteers on site who work with him in the clinics where they treat thousands of people. VOSH relies heavily on donations that they receive from doctors, pharmaceutical companies and private donors. Dr. Krasnow and the other doctors pay their own way on the trips and do not take a salary. Most of the people on the board of directors donate their own money, he says. Local organizations like Lions International or Rotary International help in providing the organization with transportation, translators and meals while in country.
The largest program he ever oversaw was in El Salvador. In 1990, the Foundation for Women’s Development in El Salvador (FUDEM) invited him to help establish a vision program that was a VOSH/FUDEM collaboration. The joint venture was a huge success. They provided medical services and surgical services for many, many eyes, and just in El Salvador have donated nearly 200,000 pairs of glasses and at least $250,000 worth of medicine.
This year marks 31 years of volunteerism and dedication that Dr. Krasnow has contributed to millions of people in a variety of countries across the globe. Over the years, he has been able to sail up the Nile, visit the Great Wall of China, climb the mountain where Confucius actually built a temple, visited the Amazon and toured Tical, which is the largest Mayan ruins in the world in the jungles of Guatemala. Though he created the organization, he now holds the title as executive director of VOSH California. Asked for memorable stories, he replies, “I have been involved personally in probably somewhere close to 100,000 patients overseas. So with 100,000 patients, there are a lot of stories.”
One story that surfaced was the heartfelt story of a woman in Costa Rica. “There was an incident with a middle-aged woman who came into the clinic in Costa Rica. We examined her; we customarily exam about 500 patients a day. She was a 55-year-old grandmother, and that afternoon she came back and brought us some fruit and artifacts as gifts, and she told us she had gone and enrolled in school. We had given her glasses, and she enrolled in classes. I asked, ‘Why would you do that?’ She told us that she has a couple of grandchildren who are going to school in the United States, and she used to dictate to one of her granddaughters letters to write to her grandchildren. And she said, ‘I’m going to learn to write my own letters.’ Her vision was so poor she couldn’t read, so she went to school so she could learn how to read and write so she could write letters to her grandchildren. Just then one of her younger granddaughters came by. This woman had these new glasses on-she was profoundly near-sighted. And she sat there and just held her granddaughter’s face in her hands and said, ‘I always knew she was beautiful, but she is even more beautiful.'” Dr. Krasnow passionately replies,”That is an example of how profound an impact you can make on an individual, which we take for granted. ‘Yeah, my glasses are scratched; I’ll go to the optometrist and get a new pair.’ That is not an option in many places.”
The ability to help people see well and function better is the major goal behind VOSH. Dr. Krasnow said that for the people in the countries they help it is a matter of not having the facilities or money to fix their medical problems. Sometimes a month’s salary or more is what it would cost for treatment in the city. That is why he and VOSH provide free clinical care. “It is a matter of food and lodging as opposed to getting a pair of glasses. So when we can provide it for them, we can virtually change their lives,” says the doctor.
In the clinics, the doctors constantly find the tragic trauma cases resulting from wars, farming accidents, injuries of all kinds. “We see a lot of serious cases like disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma.” They see people with either vision or even life threatening conditions. Dr. Krasnow himself has seen people with brain tumors, congenital deformities of the eyes, profound vision losses. Children are often found with congenital cataracts; the doctors regularly perform surgery on them. They often work with factory workers who are often paid for peace work. If they can give them better vision, they, in turn, help those people produce more high quality work faster. “We can impact their economic standing in just one day, and if we do that to 100 or 200 workers in a factory, we can impact the quality of work the factory produces, and we can change the economics of that town. We can increase their standard of living by a substantial percentage just by having them do higher quality work faster by being able to see. So that is what I do.”
In April 2001, Dr. Krasnow traveled to Brazil in a remote area of the northeast. There, he worked only on school children, and he says 20 percent of them needed some sort of visual correction. “The whole thing is if they can’t see, they can’t learn so their opportunities are tremendously impacted. We give them a new chance.”
He often modestly retells and shares his experiences as simple everyday occurrences. Though he is modest, he is renowned for his humane work. In Costa Rica, people will greet him on the street to say “hello” or “thanks,” often calling him by his nicknames “Dr. David” and “El Jefe.” Sometimes Dr. Krasnow’s ability to help people means being in the right place at the right time. “In Costa Rica there was a little girl about 8 or 9 years old, and she had a piece of wood that had gone completely through her cornea, and she couldn’t get to the city to see a doctor. The local doctor said, “Well, I’m a GP; I don’t do eyes. I came into town, and they know me because I worked in Costa Rica for 15 years, and they asked me to remove it. I operated on her, removed the piece of wood, bandaged her eye, medicated her, and she was fine. Had we not done it, she would have lost the eye. There was a reason I was there in this particular village.”
When Dr. Krasnow takes first time doctors to the clinics, he says often the doctors are overwhelmed with the amount of work that they do and the extent of discovered problems. Often they cannot treat everybody and must turn away people. He says the ability to handle this problem is to just take it a step at a time. “When you do humanitarian work, you do it one patient at a time. If you look at the whole scope of things, you say, ‘Gosh, 3,000 patients this week; I can’t do that.’ So you deal with them one at a time; there will always be patients you can’t get to.”
Dr. Krasnow tells his first time doctors and nurses they are not turning anyone away, but they will get them when they come back. “Once in Venezuela, when the clinic opened, there were 7,000 people waiting, and we were only going to see 1,250 that day.”
“There are always more people who need help than you can provide help to, and that is why you go back, and that is why you run multiple programs. And the thing is not to be overwhelmed by it and to understand that you are doing a certain amount of benefit, but you can’t help everybody on every trip. There are just too many people who need help. It can be pretty daunting. When you see little kids with profound problems, it can impact you. But it doesn’t matter whether they are little kids or old people. When we were in Vietnam, we saw these old veterans with major head or eye trauma. They were blind. You kind of sit there, take a deep breath and do what you can.”
When the day is over, and the work is done, Dr. Krasnow can sit down, relax and realize that a dream and goal he had for himself so long ago has truly come true. “You sleep well knowing that you’ve had a major impact. I remember when I first started, and we saw a couple hundred patients a day, I would say, ‘But we are not even making a dent.’ But in retrospect we now see more than 300,000 patients, one at a time. It feels good. We truly are helping people.”