By ELLIE LINGNER
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A thick white cataract had covered the pupil of Cynthia Rearie’s right eye for more than a decade on the day she met Alan Aker.
Aker and his wife, Ann, both ophthalmologists in Boca Raton, were attending a bat mitzvah last year at the Palm Beach Gardens Marriott where Rearic works as a waitress.
“He came up to me and asked for some silverware,” Rearic recalls. When he stared, “I thought, ‘Oh boy, another person looking at my funky eye.’”
Aker asked Rearic if she knew that it was a cataract and why she hadn’t had it removed. A single parent with two teenagers at home, Rearic, 48 explained her situation: She works several jobs and makes more than poverty level income. She doesn’t qualify for aid, but she can’t afford insurance and she definitely couldn’t afford a $6,000 cataract operation.
Aker, 50, offered to do the surgery free if she could get to his Boca Raton facility. Rearic’s response: “Why?”
“Because God has given us the finances and the facility to help people take care of things like that,” he told her.
Three weeks later, Aker’s surgery restored Rearic’s sight. “It was so fantastic. It was like a miracle,” she says.
Rearic is not the only beneficiary of the Akers’ generosity. In 1982 they helped set up the Caribbean Eye Program to treat the needy on St. Kitts in the West Indies. They also established an eye institute in the Dominican Republic designed to serve the poor.
And on Saturday, May 13, as part of the third annual nationwide Mission Cataract, Aker and a staff of volunteers will screen and schedule for surgery anyone who is visually impaired and has no means to pay.
Aker grew up on Long Island where his dad taught school and his mom worked for the telephone company. “We had everything but money,” he says.
Now that he’s got it, he enjoys giving it away. “Ann and I have always been ‘project’ people,” says Aker. “I guess my parents taught me to care about people.”
A graduate of West Point, Aker first worked as an engineer, then applied to New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. and recalls his entrance interview. He wanted to be a doctor, he says, for “purely selfish reasons. I’ve been an engineer, and bridges never say ‘thank you.’ I want to hear that.”
He’s been hearing it ever since. Aker’s family has ties to the Amish community in Pennsylvania and every year he treats more than 200 Amish patients for free. “(Patients) must know that what they have is treatable and must get down here and back on their own,” he says. To make the process easier, Aker bought and renovated two nearby houses, which he turned into what his employees call The Amish House, a place where patients stay without charge after surgery.
Ophthalmology is a “happy specialty,” says Aker. “We can perform dramatic, life-changing surgery in 10 minutes…We can give the precious gift of sight and restore quality of life.” And so he does.