I recently returned from another eyecare mission trip to Guatemala with the Ontario chapter of VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity). Our team of 13 volunteers consisted of 7 optometrists, 1 ophthalmologist, 1 pharmacist, 1 optician and 3 non-health professionals from the Kitchener-Waterloo, Stratford, Mitchell and Hamilton areas. For most of us, it was not our first time in Guatemala, as the group has been travelling back and forth for the last 20 years. It is truly a unique experience going to Central America with colleagues of similar mindset and skill set to serve people in need.
This year we returned to the mountainous village of La Union, Zacapa. There was comfort in being back in a familiar place. Not much had changed with the surroundings except for some progress that was being made to repair a critical bridge along our route. The weather was also noticeably warmer! When we arrived at the old church building where we set up our clinic, we were pleasantly surprised to see black tarps already hung, sectioning off the open area into exam lanes for us. This proved to be a much better design for patient flow than last year. Thankfully all of our equipment and supplies made it through customs without any issues. It was not long before we unpacked and were ready to see patients who had been lined up waiting for us.
Prior to our arrival, a Guatemalan optometrist triaged patients to ensure our time was best used to treat those in greatest need. People of all different ages came for eye examinations. We generally performed full eye examinations including refraction, to determine the spectacle correction, and assessed ocular health. Many were fit with eyeglasses for the first time allowing them to return to school or work again. Sadly, many people suffer from uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension causing an impact on their vision so educating them was sometimes the best we could do. A smaller group underwent cataract surgery as well. We even had some returning patients and referrals from patients we saw last year! Unlike last year, the electricity remained on in full force at the clinic and surgery sites so there were no interruptions to patient care.
It was wonderful being able to reconnect with some familiar faces who translated for us last year and also meet some new ones. They were all very grateful that we would travel so far to help their people. I was especially thankful to have our translators helping during a few challenging days when I lost my voice! By the end of our time, approximately 900 patients were examined, more than 1000 pairs of glasses were distributed and 30 cataract surgeries were performed.
Once they are received, donated eyeglasses are cleaned and repaired in our office. Then the prescriptions are measured through an automated machine. The final steps are to sort them by prescription power and lens design, tag them and then categorize them in a spreadsheet. Eyeglasses of all sizes, colours and designs are needed including sunglasses because many of the people in Guatemala develop eye conditions secondary to inadequate UV protection.
When the spectacle prescription is determined for the patient, the hunt is on to find a pair of glasses that fits and closely matches the lens power needed from the boxes of glasses that were donated and brought along. Sometimes an exact match is found, but often not. As you can imagine, as the clinic days go on and the supply of glasses lessens, the options are limited.
After writing a blog post last year about my trip, we saw an increase in patients dropping off their old eyewear for future missions. It’s a simple but important way of contributing to a great cause. Thank you again to those who supported the project in this way!