Our March eye care mission supported by CVC proved to be a success in every sense of the word. Admittedly leading a group into the wilds of Costa Rica to conduct eye exams on a couple hundred patients, where we don’t know the language, have no idea where we’re going (and can’t even get cell phone service) requires a certain amount of blind faith in your support crew. Well, they did not disappoint in the least.
Sandra Solis was our on-ground support lead, coordinating our drivers, clinic location, patient appointments and the rest of the Lions Club volunteers. Our drivers Henry and Ruperto were highly skilled, and at least in Henry’s case, very talkative even though we had no clue for the most part what he was telling us. After picking us up at the San Jose airport hotel and driving uts for 4 hours into the backcountry, we got out at the building where we were to be working in mid-afternoon on Monday to scope out our spot and get set up. We were a bit surprised to see about 30 or so patients already lined up to see us. Well, we aim to please so we got to work right away. We quickly became aware of a few glitches including a bathroom door you had to slam to close, a lizard in Michele’s exam room and the HEAT! Wow, was it hot. Thebuilding actually had electricity so we were at least able to hook up a few fans and get some air circulating. After taking some time to figure out our system, we had successfully seen all 30 patients in about 2 hours.
It was now dark (happens quickly in the tropics) and we had to get to our cabin. First we had to cross a river which was easily navigated by our drivers. But then we had to deal with a stubborn horse at the other end blocking our way, which Henry managed to eventually move using a combination of shouting and shoving (wonder if the horse understood him better than we did?).The cabin was great. Just perfect. Cut out windows, a couple of bedrooms but a working bathroom with running water. The Lions were busy getting dinner ready. The food they served us over the clinic was amazing. Completely organic, locally grown produce. We consumed a lot of calories as a result but used them up quickly as a result of the heat and hard work! The next day we were able to appreciate the beauty of where we were actually located. This is rural Costa Rica, where most tourists will never go. It was gorgeous, rolling hills, dirt roads, native flora and fauna, no crowds. We all decided we could easily spend a couple weeks in the cabin if given the opportunity. Having the Lions there making our meals the whole time would have been really nice. I think they only do this for people who are actually working though.
The relatively short drive to the clinic each morning ended with a lineup of patients already waiting prior to 8 am. As anyone who comes to MVO knows, we are all about technology, so were a little disappointed when our auto-refractor would not hold a charge no matter what batteries we used. “Back to basics” became the name of the game – we would use our good old retinoscopes to determine patient’s eyeglass prescriptions, and ophthalmoscopes to look into their eyes to check for disease. Hannah worked the front visual acuity and case history station, Kaila worked the tonometer and glasses station, and Michele and I did the eye exams. One translator per doctor plus one at entry to collect patient’s entering concerns.
Patients arrived via horseback or on foot from neighboring villages. They lined up patiently in the heat. Our system seemed to be working: pressures and dilating drops for everyone over 40, this gave us nice big pupils to see through. Everyone was very polite and well dressed. (Sandra explained to us that our presence was considered a fairly big deal in their community which is why everyone we saw made a special effort to look their best). “Mira la equis por favor” (“look at the X please”) was my most common request. A lot of eyes showed UV damage, as no one can afford sunglasses there but most spend all their time outdoors working in the fields. Providing sunglasses for these folks was probably one of the more important services we provided. We saw lots of kids – a few did actually have glasses already but many were severely outdated or just the wrong prescription. One little girl was extremely nearsighted but was only wearing half her total correction, leaving her still very visually impaired even with her glasses. She’ll be really happy once her new glasses arrive.
On our final day we worked until 3 PM. We saw everyone in the surrounding communities for a total of 240 patients. We gave away 63 pairs of reading glasses, 51 prescription, and 113 sunglasses. It was really nice to see no more lineups at the entrance. At a previous mission we had to leave after 4 days, and at the end of the day there were still lineups of several dozen we just could not get to. This time was far less frustrating.
Henry and Ruperto took us to a hotel in San Isidro, then left to return a bit later to take us to Ruperto’s house to attend a dinner hosted by our Lions volunteers. We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of gratitude as Cecilia (President of the Lions Club) presented us with hand painted crafts made by a local artisan. We reciprocated with the presentation of souvenir pins from Alberta, giving thanks for the great hospitality and flawless operational execution we experienced throughout the trip. We promised to return, and this was met with a lot of enthusiasm, we took this as a sign we were maybe not as high-maintenance as we thought.
Thanks to the San Isidro Lions Club, Sandra Solis, Canadian Vision Care, and all our friends who supported us by donating online or via our bottle drive. Thanks to Dr. Heather Cowie whose tutorial prior to our trip really helped us prepare. And thanks to our MVO team who participated in this great experience – you really made me proud.
Dr. Tom Wilk