The Unbreakable, Unstoppable Alan S. Crandall, MD

Apr 14, 2018 9:00 AM

crandall_purpleshirt.jpgThe founder and senior medical director of the John A. Moran Eye Center’s Global Outreach Division, Alan S. Crandall, MD, is the only physician to receive humanitarian awards from all three major ophthalmology organizations, and he’s just received his fourth—as the inaugural American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS) Foundation Chang Humanitarian Award winner. To mark the occasion, here are a few behind-the-scenes stories we don’t often share about what makes him so unique.

Alan will tell you that his dad, one of Utah’s first ophthalmologists, was reluctant to charge anyone who didn’t have the means to pay for his services and would often take payment in the form of a chicken or two. A colleague who has worked with Crandall from the beginning of his career says that “If Alan could get away with extending that same kindness to local patients in need today, he would do it.”

Then there’s the time he performed the first cataract surgery on a gorilla named Gorgeous at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo. He donated his surgical expertise and arranged for a donated lens and equipment.

But most of the stories about Crandall involve his legendary stamina on outreach trips treating curable blindness around the globe. Ask anyone who has accompanied him on one of these trips and you’ll hear the same refrain: “Tanzania, Micronesia, Guatemala, South Sudan, Nepal, Haiti . . . Crandall never stops, never eats, and never even takes a break. He never says ‘no.’ He just keeps going.”

Here’s how a few of his colleagues describe the experience:  

“A Moran Eye Center surgical outreach camp is a sight to behold. The stresses on a team are immmense: hours—sometimes days—of travel, language barriers, new equipment, makeshift operating rooms, and the most advanced and complex cataracts most surgeons will ever see in their careers. Add jet lag, sleep deprivation, and food and bacteria they are meeting for the first time, and it’s enough to bring the strongest team members to their knees. Despite all of the complexity and moving parts, you can always count on one thing: the ‘Energizer bunny’ that never stops. The seemingly super human who defies the rules that govern the rest of us is Alan Crandall—never breaking, ever working and teaching.” 
-Jeff Pettey, MD, Co-Medical Director, Moran Outreach Division

“One of his colleagues, Bob Cionni, MD, says that ‘Alan is the luckiest unlucky person I know.’ As one of Alan’s siblings, I have to agree. Events that would sideline most people don’t seem to faze our big brother. He fractured his cervical spine 15-plus years ago skiing. Yet, he was back at work in a week. The second time he broke his neck he was in a bus, on a bumpy road in Ghana when a 40-pound phaco machine dislodged from the luggage rack and hit him in the back of the neck. Fortunately, the outreach mission was over, but he was still back at work within a few days.”
-Ann Bagley, CCRC, CRA

“Our initial trip to the Federated States of Micronesia Tanzania involved traveling more than 24 hours to reach our first stop. From there, we boarded a 120-foot cargo ship and were supposed to boat a  mere 18 hours to our final destination. However, rough seas and stormy weather required the captain to slow the ship, and after 18 hours of sitting, sleeping, and balancing ourselves on the cargo hold doors, the captain announced it would be another 18 hours.

We arrived at dawn near a tropical island that seemed deserted. After anchoring in the lagoon about a quarter mile from shore, we unloaded the contents of a complete operating room (OR) onto small boats and then hauled all of the equipment and supplies through the sand to the middle of the island. There, we set up the OR in temperatures well over 90 degrees with nearly 100 percent humidity.  Alan helped every step of the way and then operated in these conditions for 8-10 hours for 3 days, literally drenched in sweat. Each evening we would return to the cargo ship in tiny boats and make the two-story vertical climb up the ship’s side stairways. However, on the second evening,  stormy weather made it too dangerous to use the stairs. 

So, the crew lowered a rope ladder. The small boats pulled up close to the ladder, and as the ship bobbed up and down, each team member stood on the slippery bow and timed the rise and fall so they could jump to the rope ladder and hold on for dear life—ever careful not to fall between the ship and the boat or risk getting crushed.

Alan, with  two artificial knees and an artificial hip, and screws in his neck, made the leap (immediately followed by Dr. Jeff Pettey who was told to sacrifice his life for Alan’s). They both slowly climbed the swinging rope ladder two stories to the ship’s deck.

This is not your ordinary day in surgery. This is not your ordinary commute to work and home. This is, however, a typical day for Alan Crandall when he is doing his humanitarian work.”
-Michael Yei, Moran Global Outreach Division Director

Why does he do it all? In his words, “The work we do improves the life of the patient. We gain new friends; we always learn from other cultures. It keeps me humble and happy to know I’m helping to make a difference.”


vision outreach ASCRS