They’re healing the blind, the lame and the maimed … and seeking more aid to further the cause

Doug Jackson, left, Hugh West and Michael Nebeker, three Utah men united by their quest to alleviate human suffering through life-changing surgeries.
Doug Jackson, left, Hugh West and Michael Nebeker, three Utah men united by their quest to alleviate human suffering through life-changing surgeries. | Lee Benson/Deseret News

I’m sitting in the iconic Red Iguana restaurant with three men who invited me to lunch. They want something, I’m finding out. That something is publicity.

Lunch, I can tell, is not their long suit. Not a leisurely one, anyway. There’s a lot of energy around the table that’s not focused on the burritos and the fresh guacamole. They eat fast, they talk fast. They’ve got stuff to do.

But they have a message they feel strongly that the world in general, and the United States government in particular, needs to hear: Every year, 17 million people around the globe die due to a lack of access to safe, simple surgical care. Seventeen million. That’s more than the annual toll from HIV, tuberculosis, polio and COVID-19 combined. That’s the entire population of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And many millions more live lives of misery due to what are called neglected surgical conditions.

The three men, all Utah natives, know this because each one, independent of the other, has made it his life’s work to deliver simple, safe surgery to heal the blind, the lame and the maimed.

Michael Nebeker is co-founder and president of Mobile Surgery International (www.msi-global.com.mx), a nonprofit that does cleft lip and cleft palate repair in Mexico.

Doug Jackson is CEO of Charity Vision (charityvision.org), a nonprofit that removes cataracts in more than two dozen developing countries.

Hugh West is chief medical officer of One World Surgery (oneworldsurgery.org), a nonprofit that performs orthopedic surgeries in Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

The statistics of these charities are impressive. In the past seven years, Mobile Surgery International has performed more than 2,000 procedures and after-care for cleft lip and cleft palate. In the past 37 years, Charity Vision has performed nearly 1.5 million cataract surgeries in more than two dozen countries. In the past 15 years, One World Surgery has performed more than 20,000 orthopedic surgeries in Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

But if Michael, Doug and Hugh have seen the life-changing value of simple, safe and relatively inexpensive surgery, they’ve also seen that the overall need is so much greater. Every three minutes, a child is born somewhere around the world with a cleft lip or cleft palate. The World Health Organization estimates there are 94 million people suffering from cataracts. Broken arms, legs, shoulders, knees and backs are ubiquitous in any country.

Access to safe surgery is a genuine global health crisis that has long gone unnoticed.

Knowing all this firsthand is why the three have banded together to shout the same thing: Help!

Drill down, and their histories are the same. All three served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their youth — Michael to Thailand, Doug to Ecuador, Hugh to Mexico. All three saw plenty of poverty and deprivation. All three returned with a strong desire to help the poor, the diseased, the mistreated and the forgotten.

“I think a lot of missionaries return that are bitten with the bug to do something,” says Nebeker.

But with these three, the desire did not dissipate with age. It expanded until it became the end-all of what they’ve chosen to devote their lives to.

“Charity work corrupted my mind,” says Jackson. “All of a sudden, doing anything else wasn’t good enough.”

“Serving other people lifts you higher and higher; you can’t quit,” says West.

Nebeker likens charity work to scuba diving. “Once you learn how to scuba dive,” he says, “you can’t go to a beach and sit there ever again, because you know what’s underwater; you know there’s this incredible world with octopuses and rocks and fish and coral waiting for you to discover. So to go to a beach and just sit on a chair is completely worthless.”

What the three charity comrades would most like to see is more awareness, and contribution, from organizations that could really move the needle.

Not to mention any names, but the United States of America is one of them.

“Every time we turn around, it looks like we’re spending more money on bombs and missiles and bullets and we’d like to see more dollars spent on neglected surgical conditions,” says Nebeker.

The United States Agency for International Development has an annual budget of over $60 billion, with almost half of that dedicated to global health. Want to make these guys happy? Earmark a portion of those billions specifically to safe, necessary surgeries — to be performed by local surgeons trained in their own countries. Not only would that save and improve lives, but it would improve international relations.

“Let’s transform the lives of children all around the world,” says Nebeker, “and use medical diplomacy as a currency for peace.”

Gaining USAID budgeting, or similar consistent funding from established organizations that goes beyond the important private donations that currently keep the charities fiscally afloat, would allow many more countries, and people, to be served.

After staying in their own lane the last several years, the three Utahns decided to combine forces. They’re not merging their charities. They’ll all keep within their own specialty. But to get the message out about neglected surgical needs, they’ve created what they’re calling the Humanitarian Surgery Alliance. The idea is that three voices shout louder than one.

Taking me to lunch was one of the alliance’s first functions. Their message was as easy to understand as the bean and cheese burritos. The need is great. The cure, in the form of proven surgery, is proven. Seventeen million people a year don’t need to die in vain.

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Three young Bolivian boys with their new glasses from CharityVision. | Charity Vision
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Dr. Castro, a partner doctor of CharityVision in Cusco, Peru, checks the eyes of a patient. | Charity Vision
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A picture of Gabriel following his cleft palate and cleft lip surgery by Mobile Surgery International. | Mobile Surgery International
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A child in Mexico, Gabriel, is pictured here prior to undergoing cleft palate and cleft lip surgery at a Mobile Surgery International clinic. | Mobile Surgery International