By Denis Langlois
Gayle Harrison made a promise to herself eight years ago.
After being forced to choose a new career, and deciding to go back to school to become a licenced optician, she vowed that if she was successful she would use her skills to help children and adults in developing countries.
It’s a promise she kept in both 2013 – when she travelled as part of a team to the Dominican Republic a year and a half after she became a licenced optician – and again in 2016 when she spent three weeks in Malawi in southeastern Africa.
Later this year, from Nov. 15 to 30, Harrison will take part in her third outreach trip.
She will travel with a team to El Salvador and Nicaragua with the goal of equipping a permanent clinic and training local staff to conduct eye assessments and fit glasses as well as organizing on-site clinics in remote villages.
The plan is to take 1,500 to 2,000 new pairs of glasses with them.
Her team is currently seeking donations to assist.
Recently, Harrison, who was named Optician of the Year by the Ontario Opticians Association in 2014, spoke with Optical Prism about her work, what inspires her and the future.
Q. Can you start by telling us a bit about why you started doing outreach trips and about your past trips?
A. In 2013, I got a call from my friend, Richard, about a volunteer team going to the Dominican Republic in six months. We had done this type of project together before and he was convinced I was ready to get back out there. I had planned on being physical labour again but when I filled out my application, I reminded myself of my promise.
The Samaritan Foundation, our sponsoring organization, had a lady distributing glasses but with limited skills and equipment. They also had a new medical clinic that had space for a refracting lane. Outreach should always be with the goal of long-term solutions. We build houses not erect tents. So instead of just going with donated glasses to dispense for a few days, I decided to equip and train the staff and the new clinic. I reached out to the Opticians Association of Canada and the OOA for support and donations. Both organizations enthusiastically said YES and the first Team Licensed Optician was formed.
We were able to equip the clinic with a desktop auto-refractor from Axis Medical and all the tools and equipment needed to do simple refractions and dispensing. The local staff was trained in a day-long community clinic where we saw 56 adults and another day at a local school where 70 children and teachers were fitted with their first glasses.
After that success, in 2015, I was contacted by a London church that had built a children’s centre in Chipagala, Malawi. They had a need for eyecare in that area too and asked if I would be willing to be part of their outreach in 2016. I agreed and recruited another optician, Bryan Todd from Sudbury, to join us.
Although a permanent clinic wasn’t an option for these communities, Plastic Plus donated and equipped us with two handheld auto-refractors so we could be mobile. Also, through several generous donations, we took with us over 2,000 brand new pairs of glasses. Each day, Bryan and I, with the help of two assistants, saw over 100 patients. By the end of our three-week trip, we had assessed and fitted 946 patients.
Q. Do any specific encounters/experiences from your trips really stand out in your mind?
A. In the Dominican Republic, I saw my first patient with Acanthamoeba. I was able to refer him to the clinic’s primary physician. Unfortunately, the physician came back not knowing what was wrong with the patient’s eye and needed me to advise on a treatment course.
Thank goodness for modern technology where I was able to get my phone and text an OD and MD in Canada to guide us all through it. It makes me very sad to know, even when medical care is available in a developing world, it’s still substandard.
There was also a lovely lady who was recovering from a stroke and needed reading glasses to go back to work as a seamstress. Just before I left, a fellow optician gave me a new pair of reading glasses. His mother had just passed away and he wanted her new glasses to help someone else. They were the right RX and when the lady put them on, the first thing she did was open her bible to bless us for the gift to her.
In Malawi, there was a four-year-old boy who was the only child to arrive with not just one parent but both. They believed he was blind as both eyes wandered. But with an assessment, he needed a -3.00 RX. We fitted him with glasses and for the first time, he saw his mother. It was magical.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming trip.
A. A new Team Licensed Optician is being formed to partner with PAN missions and be a sub-group of their medical outreach. Right now, we have two opticians, one intern optician and one optical assistant ready to go and serve. Once again, we have an opportunity to equip a permanent clinic and train the local staff in addition to doing onsite clinics in remote villages.
Q. How do you fund these projects and how can people support you?
A. I pay for all my personal expenses but it takes a village to send out a Team Licensed Optician to serve. It is humbling and amazing how every time I ask people and companies for donations, they generously say yes. The OAC, OOA, Plastic Plus, Loblaws Optical, The Frame Barn, Optika Eklectica, Costco, Kleargo, Hoya, Axis Medical and Personal Optical all have given funds, equipment and glasses to make these projects happen. This project will be no different. We don’t need everything from one person or company to give it all but if a lot of individuals give just a little, we get everything we need. This trip we need frames, lenses, a desktop auto-refractor, an auto-lensometer, tools, nosepads, temple tips, screwdrivers, screws, Snellen chart (symbols not letters), an ultrasonic cleaner, money (to pay for shipping, extra luggage and to have an emergency fund to pay for medical treatment onsite if necessary). Clean, neutralized, single-vision and FT bifocal glasses, ready readers and soft flat cases to put them in.
Q. What does the future hold for you regarding these projects? Do you plan to continue?
A. It is my hope that we can assemble a Team Licensed Optician every year and partner with a variety of organizations. It’s amazing to do eye care in these developing and unserved communities but it’s also an opportunity to educate the people within the organization about the work of opticians and other eyecare professionals, so they come back to Canada with a better understanding of who we are and what we do.
Someday, I want to have a team that has a member from every Canadian province and territory – The Dream (baker’s) Dozen. In time, I hope there will be permanent clinics in several countries that we can go and follow up with on a regular basis. As long as I am able, I will continue to keep my promise of reaching out and serving those who need my skills and knowledge, in my backyard or on the other side of the world.
To donate, contact Gayle at email@example.com