As 8-year-old John Cropsey and his classmates sat in their one-room schoolhouse in Togo, West Africa, an approaching helicopter was creating a buzz of excitement. The kids and their teacher rushed out to watch the copter climb over an expanse of mountains and then release its powerful spray over the nearby river.

John was witnessing the eradication of river blindness. The spray targeted black flies, which carry

Onchocerca volvulus

, the parasite causing river blindness.

Formative experiences come in many flavors. Flash forward about 20 years. John, now 29, is training at Wills Eye Institute of Thomas Jefferson University to become an ophthalmologist.

He's out of Africa. But not for long. After he finishes his training in June, he and his wife, Jessica, a teacher, will head back with two other doctor couples to realize their dream of establishing a mission hospital.

It's a family tradition. In 1983, John's father, Robert Cropsey, moved his wife and four young sons from Michigan to Togo, where they built by hand their own house and hospital. John vividly remembers riding with his dad on their red Massey Ferguson tractor to clear patches of thick jungle for the hospital.

Two years later, the doors opened and the mission hospital became one of the region's busiest. His father, who trained as a general surgeon in the United States, cared for hundreds of patients a month no matter their ailment. He performed everything from orthopedic procedures to neurosurgery.

John recalls his father's delight after removing the cataracts of an elderly man who had not seen in years. The patient then saw his grandchildren for the first time.

Such experiences, along with his strong Christian faith, inspire John to work in third-world medicine.

"I grew up watching my parents serve God and others by being medical missionaries," he says. "They were fulfilling such a huge need. I can't imagine life any better way."

While many students begin medical school with dreams of serving the poor and neglected, the selfless vision often gets stamped out. Paradoxically, it can become all about "me." Am I studying enough? Did I impress my professors? Will I get honors or just pass? Later, the questions evolve: How much money can I earn? How will I pay off my debt? Where's my next grant? Can I get tenure?

John and the two other doctor couples emerged from medical school without having lost their raw idealism. They all met during medical training in Ann Arbor, Mich., and now dub themselves the McCropders (from their names, the McLaughlins, Cropseys and Faders). Among them will be an ophthalmologist, a general surgeon, an obstetrician-gynecologist, a family practitioner, two teachers, and five kids.

Next fall, the group is moving to Kenya for two years of training at Tenwek Hospital, which serves 600,000 people of the Kipsigis, Kisi and Maasai tribes. Through World Medical Mission's Post-Residency International Fellowship, they will learn how to run a mission hospital.

John will also work on perfecting a different style of cataract operation. Instead of using a $52,000 machine to do cataract surgery with a several-hundred-dollar lens implant as we do in the United States, he'll learn on a $9,000 machine with a $5 implant. This cost-effective method is roughly equivalent in visual outcomes, two studies have shown.

While many freshly graduated residents in Philadelphia worry about malpractice suits, reimbursement rates and starting salaries, the McCropders have different concerns: raising kids in Africa; acquiring vaccinations, visas and licenses; avoiding parasitic infections; and finding $40,000 per family for airfare, international health insurance, and an all-terrain vehicle.

That's just the beginning. Once they start their mission, they'll need to fund their equipment and buildings.

Now is the season of giving, but for many fortunate people in Africa, every day will be a day of giving, thanks to the McCropders.

Scrubbing In:

Rachel K. Sobel, a second-year ophthalmology resident at the Wills Eye Institute of Thomas Jefferson University, writes about her experiences

every other week.