An Orange County pediatric ophthalmologist helps children here and abroad by supporting their vision in every way he can.
Dr. Ashish Mehta will take a crying, uncooperative child over an adult patient any day.
“I like the innocence of a child. I like the ability that I can impact someone’s life not just for the next 10, 15, 20 years, but that I can potentially impact it for the next 75, 80, 90 years,” says the pediatric ophthalmologist, who is a father himself of two adult daughters.
The way he sees it, it’s all about personality and what you’re drawn to. There’s also an art to getting young patients to cooperate by distracting them long enough to get all the information he needs. Mehta thrives under the circumstances. Sometimes, it comes down to toys, sometimes videos, or in case of older patients, just a conversation.
“But there’s one area that no matter how much you try to distract them, never goes over well. That’s when we have to put drops in their eyes,” Mehta says. “That’s where our wonderful nurses come in. I get to give the stickers at the end.”
Mehta knew he wanted to be a surgeon from a young age. You might say it’s in his blood as he grew up watching his father, a urologist, find immense joy in helping people.
“I always had in mind to do something in terms of service, and there’s many ways to serve your community, to serve people, but this was just something I was drawn to,” he says.
As Mehta went through his residency, his calling became clear.
“I found myself not only drawn to the types of surgeries that we did in pediatric ophthalmology, but really just the patient population itself,” he says.
Mehta has been working with Kaiser Permanente since he finished his fellowship in 1995. Now, he sees patients in his Yorba Linda office as well as the neonatal intensive care units at Kaiser Irvine and Kaiser Anaheim. The most common problems he deals with — his specialties — are strabismus, also known as misaligned eyes, and amblyopia, commonly known as lazy eye. Then, there’s a small group — about 10 percent in Mehta’s estimate — who deal with severe visual defects. They’re the most challenging, and Mehta admits he’s not always able to help them, but at least he has a resource for the families in the form of Beyond Blindness. The Santa Ana-based nonprofit — the only one of its kind in the region — offers early intervention, enrichment and education for children up to 3 years old, as well as family support to help the kids be as independent as they can be. Mehta was first introduced to the organization through his daughter who was volunteering there. Impressed by Beyond Blindness’s services and professionals, he joined the board of directors about eight years ago and is now working with the staff there on potentially expanding the services to children ages 3 to 5 years old.
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“I feel like Beyond Blindness allows me to offer some hope and some intervention that I as a physician cannot offer these patients,” Mehta says.
Beyond Blindness recently had a gala that raised close to a quarter of a million dollars for its cause. During the event, Mehta received Dr. Wilhelm de Nijs Vision Award, recognizing his significant contributions to changing the lives of those living with visual impairments.
“I was touched to get that, but I think that reward just reflects the dedication and hard work of so many people and Beyond Blindness,” he says humbly.
Mehta’s contributions don’t end in Orange County. Since 1994, every two years or so, he goes back to India where he was born and spent the first five years of his life. Over the course of two weeks, he sees about 150 underserved pediatric patients, mostly from rural areas with limited access to healthcare. He performs about 35 to 50 pro bono surgeries at a hospital in the state of Gujarat, working closely with his local counterpart on any follow-ups. Mehta pays his own way to India, supports himself while he’s there and donates to a charitable trust that helps offset the cost of the procedures. He says his wife, Asha, came along on a few trips, pitching in wherever she could.
By Magda Hernandez