Volunteering with international eye care missions has changed my life.
My inaugural trip was serving as a translator for an eye care team in Guatemala. We worked with the poor near Lago de Atitlan and cared for children with disabilities. I was 21 years old and knew that I wanted to work in health care but didn’t know what path to take. This trip solidified my plans.
One of our first patients was an elderly farm worker. Not only was our team able to measure his prescription, but we also had a pair of donated glasses that matched his needs.
I was the person who put glasses on his face.
I don’t remember his name anymore, but I remember the look he gave me, with tears welling in his eyes, and all he could choke out was “gracias, gracias.” I smiled, cried…and knew I’d found my calling. Could there be anything more satisfying than helping others see? I watched him see the world with his new glasses. I watched him marvel as he looked around the room. How lucky was I to be the one sitting beside him?
I have a picture of him with me and my friend, Susanne, who was also a translator during that trip. She decided to become a medical doctor after this experience. I love this picture, as it reminds me why I became an Optometrist.
I have since had many heart-wrenching, tear-jerking experiences. A mother stopped me during an exam so that she could see her children clearly. An older woman brought out her bible that she hadn’t been able to see for years. A young man started crying and yelling, “Claro! Claro!!” (translation: Clear! Clear!!) as stronger lenses were placed in front of his eyes—he had thought he was blind.
I finished my year abroad in Guatemala and came back to Canada to complete my science degree and then apply to Optometry school. I was startled to realize there is only ONE English speaking Optometry school in Canada and was so relieved to have been accepted to it. While in Waterloo I struggled with the lack of opportunities for students to do international eye care. So, with a group of my classmates, I helped start a VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Service to Humanity) chapter at our school. I spent my summer breaks and reading breaks volunteering as a student doctor in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and Nicaragua.
I also decided to organize my own team and head back to where it all started for me — Guatemala. The first month after graduation I led a team of volunteers and spent 5 days working at schools, churches, and community centres providing care. I have since taken teams to Jamaica with Canadian Vision Care.
I left every mission trip asking myself, how can I do better? How can we help more people? How can we make this sustainable? And I decided I needed to go back to school to help find some of these answers. I found the best school in the world for international/public health care and I am proud to say I will be graduating this year from Johns Hopkins University with my Master’s in Public Health. Hopefully this will be another stepping stone in my international career and help me achieve Calgary Family Eye Doctors’ goal of “changing lives through eye care,” both at home and abroad.
Eye care missions shaped how I view vision. Vision is not seeing small letters on a chart in a dark room. It is not seeing 20/20. Vision is dignity. Vision is the ability to see your reflection in the mirror and to see your loved ones’ faces. Vision is the ability to see and enjoy the food on your plate. Vision is fundamental to learning and academic success. Vision can combat illiteracy. Vision is safety. Vision gives the power to generate income and vision is a tool to combat poverty. In short, vision is allowing someone to have their best life.
I have also realized that the gap between those who need eye care and those who have access to eye care is massive. It is overwhelming. And it is grossly unjust. I have met patients who are blind from eye conditions that could have been caught and treated…if only they had been born in Canada. Eyecare should not be a privilege for the rich and the wealthy. And I, for one, am going to dedicatemy career to help bridge this gap.