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Anatomy of an Expedition: An Interview with Scott Hamilton, Expedition Leader
Dooley Intermed Foundation 2013 Gift of Sight Expedition
Delivering quality eye care to Third World countries such as Nepal, particularly in remote regions connected by little more than donkey trails, is a true adventure and involves a caravan of ophthalmic equipment and pharmaceuticals, personal gear, translators, camp crew and assistants.
Wall Streeter Scott Hamilton, a director of both The Explorers Club and the Dooley Intermed Foundation, previously organized a Gift of Sight Expedition in Nepal in 2011. His medical mission to upper Mustang (pronounced MOO-stang) was featured in the documentary Visions of Mustang (Skyship Films). We recently joined him for his fourth eye mission to Nepal which concluded in late May.
Tall and lanky, Hamilton, 59, speaks passionately about remote eyecare, gesturing wildly with his hands as he gets worked up. Hamilton has been traveling to Nepal for 20 years; this was his 12th visit. He calls the scenery in the Himalaya, "a symphony for the eyes."
A certified ophthalmic assistant, Hamilton assembled a medical dream team from Operation Restore Vision and the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary: Sanjay Kedhar, M.D., 39, uveitis and cornea specialist; Christopher Teng, M.D., 37, glaucoma specialist; and Travis Jenkins, M.D., 30, a third year resident. Joining them in Nepal were an additional surgeon and eye technicians from the Himalaya Eye Hospital in Pokhara.
Over 20 years, Hamilton has become adept at planning and executing expeditions, including ones like Gift of Sight with so many moving parts. During a flight from Jomsom to Pokhara, we asked him to share some insight:
1. Formulate a Plan - Hamilton recommends first coming up with a concept, then refining it and determining the partners necessary to succeed. In the case of delivering quality eyecare to one of the poorest countries on earth, he knew he needed an overall sponsor for funding, skilled ophthalmologists from both Operation Restore Vision and the Himalaya Eye Hospital, assistance with local logistics, and 16 tri-lingual Buddhist monks as assistants whom local villagers would trust.
"People ask me to share the expedition plan. Well, guess what? There is no standard template for an expedition. You can't just fill-in-the-blanks, pack and go. Much depends on where you are going, and what you want to accomplish, and the itinerary is a bit of a moving target, so you need to be flexible," Hamilton advises.
2. Carefully Map Logistics - Maps of the region are useful, but often wildly inaccurate. Plan each day to the best of your ability, but keep in mind the uncertainty that accompanies all travel in the developing world. Trying to do too much, too fast, is a standard rookie error, he says.
"A medical eye mission is somewhat like the Rolling Stones coming into town. Our caravan arrives, we unload, meet the locals, and get to work. We put on a great 'show,' make a lot of people very, very happy when they can see again, then we pack up and head down the road to do it all again tomorrow."
3. Formulate a Budget - An expedition of this magnitude takes significant funding. "Sponsors will want to see a realistic and detailed budget in advance. You'll also want to start with cash sponsors, or at least in-kind support for items you would otherwise have to purchase, such as apparel, which Sherpa Adventure Gear supplied for Gift of Sight," reports Hamilton. "Thanks to the Nepal-based apparel manufacturer, we enjoyed both protection from the elements and a unified look for the team."
4. Assemble a Team - "Everybody needs a skill set and a job on an expedition," and multi-taskers are vastly preferred versus one trick ponies," Hamilton says. "There's no room for spectators. Thus we were fortunate to work with Operation Restore Vision and the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary which loaned us three top ophthalmologists, as well as the Himalaya Eye Hospital, for effective patient follow-up after we left. The team also included a filmmaker and social media specialist who blogged daily."
5. Stay Healthy - "The key to staying healthy is not getting sick," he says. "I provided team members the knowledge that accrues from 12 previous trips to Nepal. Have I ever gotten the 'Kathmandu gut bomb'? Sure, but there are certain precautions that greatly increase the likelihood of remaining a functional and healthy member of the team." (See related story below).
6. Expected the Unexpected - Allow for unforeseen circumstances. "An expedition plan is merely an outline, especially in the Third World. Things will go wrong, flights will be canceled, the monsoon will arrive early, your yaks will get hijacked, there may be a national strike, vehicles won't show up or will blow a tire once they do. It's just a fact of life over there," he says.
"You need to build in extra time and budget to accommodate both expected and unexpected delays and changes. Building in a few contingency days is essential."
He suggests that if (or when) things go wrong, it's always better to brainstorm a solution than point fingers. "Consider how you can accomplish the most you can with whatever resources are still available."
7. Promote the Expedition Daily - Hamilton believes the duty of an expedition leader is to plan a safe project, execute it as well as possible under expedition conditions, then communicate the project to those who were unable to come along. "Delegate someone on the team to blog daily and feed images and video back to a someone at a desk back home who can instantly post updates online." He reports that thousands followed Gift of Sight through blogs and photos available on www.dooleyintermed.org.
Hamilton also mentions the value of taking along a professional photographer and filmmaker.For Gift of Sight, Daniel Byers of Skyship Films, the production company behind Visions of Mustang (2012), shot video and stills of the 2013 expedition (see his images at www.flickr.com/daniel byers).
"Tell your story as it happens. This raises awareness and motivates others to get involved - perhaps as participants in the future, or to write a check next time you're seeking funding."
Hamilton continues, "This emphasis on communications also provided additional credit to our main sponsors: Dooley Intermed Foundation, Operation Restore Vision, and Sherpa Adventure Gear."
8. Pull the Trigger and Go - After months of planning, the time eventually comes to "make the leap," pack your bags and go work the plan."
One of his favorite quotes: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832).
9. Post-Expedition Follow-up - The work continues long after your return. There are sponsor thank you's to write, the expedition debrief and report, speaking engagements to schedule, editing sessions for the expedition film, images to distribute to sponsors and media, and a final resolution and accounting of expenses.
"Sponsors need to hear from you afterwards. They want to know you did what you said you'd do under trying conditions, that you attempted to deliver a host of benefits in return for their support. You want a reputation as an expedition leader who comes through for them," Hamilton says.
"Besides being the right thing to do, post-expedition communication with sponsors tends to make it that much easier to fund the next project."
Your gift can work miracles, by providing the Gift of Sight to someone in need.