Marc Lewis will soon attempt to use one rare and incredible achievement - swimming the English Channel - to help reach another: Saving the eyesight of children from around the U.S. and the world.
Lewis, an anesthesiologist at UCSD's Shiley Eye Center, will attempt to swim the 21-mile distance from Dover, England to Calais, France, in August. He is dedicating his swim to Shiley's 4sight4children program, and will attempt to use it to raise funds for the program that helps bring kids from afar to La Jolla for receive a rare surgery that can restore the eyesight of children who otherwise could be blind for life.
More than 200 children have benefited from 4sight4children (formerly known as the Blind Baby Fund), which helps provide critical corneal transplant surgery to children whose families cannot afford it. Shiley Eye Center Dr. Stuart Brown is a pioneer of the procedure, and the first to perform it on young children. It is necessitated by opacities of the cornea, which children can be born with or can incur through trauma or infections.
"Essentially, these are kids that are told they are going to be blind," Lewis said. "In the countries they come from, these surgeries have never been done. Even here in the U.S., parents (of children with corneal opacities) are told, 'Your child is going to be blind.' "
Children from San Diego, elsewhere in the U.S., and from countries including Turkey, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Russia and India have undergone corneal transplants as part of the 4sight4children program.
Brown and other Shiley surgeons perform the transplants free of charge, and Lewis has donated his services for many of the procedures. But there are still costs. The 4sight4children program pays for transportation to get patients to La Jolla. Recipients of the surgery sometimes must remain in town for over a month to receive follow-up care. Shiley Eye Center does all it can to keep costs down, Lewis said, but there are costs nonetheless.
"There's just a tremendous amount of resources involved," Lewis said.
Lewis hopes his English Channel swim will help raise some of those resources, but as it's his first foray into the world of fund-raising, he doesn't have a set goal for how many dollars he hopes to raise for 4sight4children.
"This is new to me, so I can't say, 'Well, the last time I did this...' " he said. "I just hope to raise as much as possible. Many generous people have already given, and I hope that many more will."
Lewis has been a dedicated ocean swimmer for the last 10 years, almost all of which have been spent living in La Jolla. He started out with the one-mile La Jolla Rough Water Swim, held each September at La Jolla Cove. He moved up to the 3-mile "Gatorman" division of the Rough Water Swim, then moved on to a 10-mile race. He said he felt comfortable even over 10 miles, which convinced him he was ready to consider channel swims.
He trained for 12 months for the 20.4-mile swim from Catalina Island to the California coast, and last summer became only the 121st swimmer to complete the journey. The swim took just under 10 hours.
Lewis said he would be very happy with a similar time at the English Channel, which is less than a mile longer than the Catalina course but is home to much more challenging and unpredictable conditions. For starters, it's colder, anywhere between 58 and 62 degrees this time of year, compared with summer temps off California that are in the high 60s. The official Channel Swimming Association requires that the swim be made without a wetsuit or other thermal protection. Lewis trains year-round without a wetsuit and is familiar with the cold, but knows it will take its toll.
"When I'm training through the winter, I'll swim 10 miles in 56- or 57-degree water, and it's harder than 14 or 15 miles in above-65-degree water," he said. "It draws off more energy and it's more of a challenge mentally."
Other challenges include radical tidal swings of up to 15 feet, compared to about 5 feet here, powerful currents and unpredictable weather that can create windchop and dramatically slow a swimmer down. The world record for the swim is 7 hours, 14 minutes, but the varied conditions mean that an expert swimmer could take anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to cross the English Channel. Less than 1,000 people have attempted the swim.
Lewis has a window from Aug. 6 to 12 to wait for ideal conditions to complete his swim. He will be accompanied by his wife, Susan, and sons Thad and Evan, who will ride the pilot boat that will follow Lewis on his swim and provide him with food.
"There are times when you're tested, when you're mentally and physically exhausted, and that's when you have to reach deep," Lewis said. "For me, that's when I think about my wife and two boys, and think of all the people who helped me get to this point who I don't want to let down.
"Sneaking thoughts come into your mind, there's a side that says it would be so easy to get out of the water and get warm. That's when you think about things that are important, like the children at Shiley and the people I work with."