This weekend, while the political world descends on Iowa's state fairgrounds, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will be fixing cataracts 2000 miles away. As he's done every summer recess since joining the Senate, Paul's performing pro bono eye surgery. This year's mission, run and sponsored by the Moran Eye Center from the University of Utah, will take Paul to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
"We kind of suggested it," said Paul in an interview. "There was talk about Haiti being in great need, and it's fairly close to the United States. Haiti, unfortunately, is famous for a long history of problems."
In 2014, Paul joined the Moran center on a similar trip to Guatemala, where he reunited with old patients and broke out his rusty, Texas-tutored Spanish. He has no similar connection to Haiti.
"You want to go where the need is greatest," Paul said. "In our country, when you have cataracts, they're relatively easy to fix. The people we will treat in Haiti -- many of them will be completely blind. There's less medical access there. It's closer to the equator. There's more sun, people are outside more, fewer people even have sunglasses. So there's a lot you can do."
Paul's 2014 trip was balanced against a small media frenzy. Multiple media outlets traveled with him, filming his journey and surgeries for profiles of a likely presidential contender. David Bossie of the conservative Citizens United even brought a film crew -- complete with aerial drone -- to capture the scene.
Citizens United has not yet made use of that footage, and the entourage will be smaller in Haiti. (The Washington Post will be part of it.) "The main thing is for me personally is that it’s one of the most incredible things I get to be involved with," said. "It’s still the most important thing I get to do, even while I'm in the Senate, even running for president. Two hundred people will be better because we are going to be down there. Local surgeons will get some training, and they'll use that training. The goal is not for Americans to keep coming down and doing it, but for Haitians to do more of it themselves."
Paul was staying clear of politics, but he was making a point that jibed with his own views of foreign aid. Training people, then trusting them to build their own lives, was always better than constant intervention. Paul cited the example of Sanduk Ruit, a Nepalese doctor who designed a simplified kind of cataract surgery, because he had to work "without sophisticated equipment" -- and in the process, did something a Western doctor would never have thought to do.
"In medicine, you’re transferring skills," said Paul. "Even when you train, you’re learning skills. I will continue doing this throughout my life, and at some point I can foresee getting back into medicine full time. It's nice to get away from politics, and do something were you and act there's an immediate result. You take the bandages off, and someone can see."