By Sarah McGoldrick
FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS A GROUP OF CANADIAN EYECARE PROVIDERS HAVE BEEN MAKING THEIR WAY TO JAMAICA AND OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD. THEIR MISSION – TO BRING EYE- CARE TO AREAS OF THE WORLD MOST IN NEED.
This year the group set up a clinic in Montego Bay at a church just outside the city centre.
Optical Prism was able to join CVC this year to witness how a team of just a few volunteers can help more than a thousand people see better.
Each day the team travels by bus to the clinics. Depending on the area the drive can be 20 minutes to an hour or more.
With a van loaded up with equipment, eye solutions and frames the team winds their way through the busy Montego Bay streets. Wearing their trademark red shirts, the team arrives at the cream coloured Seventh Day Adventist church shortly after 8 a.m.
Under the main entrance, one of the local residents has set up a small tv tray and cooler with drinks and snacks to help feed residents as they wait their turn.
Inside the dimly lit hall are rows and rows of school children dressed in their colourful uniforms waiting patiently as their teachers carefully kept an eye on them.
The temperature in the room is already well above 30C. The air is heavy and humid. Volunteers hurriedly work to set up fans around the room. This will be the only source of cool air for the next few hours.
Stations are set up around the room similar to a hospital triage. Equipment is laid out carefully to ensure an orderly exam for each resident.
At the first station newly arrived residents have a preliminary exam. A team member looks into their eyes checking for disease like cata- racts, glaucoma and other serious eye diseases.
Each resident is carefully examined and a prescription written for either a new pair of glasses which will be delivered in January or for them to collect a pair of readers available that day.
Many parents have brought their children in to get their first eye exam. It is clear by looking in the eyes of some of the children that they have been dealing with pain and poor vision for a long time.
It’s not uncommon to see children with cataracts, glaucoma, infection.
Treatments like cataract surgery are rare and most residents are left to live with their eye ailments with little or no long term assistance.
Tim Allen has been involved with CVC since the mid 1980s, originally working at a project in St. Lucia. He said the reaction from the children when they get to see clearly for the first time is what makes working with CVC so rewarding.
“My most memorable moment was in Jamaica and discovering a child needing a -12.00 prescription and placing the trial glasses on her face and the resulting smile when she could see,” Allen said.
He noted glaucoma is eight times more prevalent among the black community than Caucasians.
“The amount of untreated and previously undiagnosed cases in Jamaica is very disturbing,” he said. Team members admitted to many moving moments in the years they have been working with CVC.
Bob Erlandson has been involved with CVC for more than 30 years. He said it all began with ‘small talk’ with program director Gerry Leinweber.
“He said he was going in two weeks and asked if I wanted to come.
I phoned my wife that night and told her about the trip,” he said.
“Our children were two-years-old and six months at the time, so I was surprised when she said I should go ‘once’, because I often talked about going on a charity project.”
He said ‘once’ turned into over 50 trips and each time has resulted in new memories and amazing experiences.
“When you are helping those that are truly in need, every day brings a new moment,” he said adding it was his first trip in 1984 that convinced him this would be a part of his life. He added CVC has become a second family and it has been one of the most exciting, memorable and gratifying experiences of his life.
“I put a pair of -7.00 on a little girl about 12 years old who had never had her eyes examined and she started to cry, so did her mother… and so did I. I was hooked,” he said.
“Thirty years, four continents, six countries, and over two full years abroad out of my office later, I still get a total charge out of witnessing those “moments”, many of them much more heart wrenching that first one that had me bawling like a school girl.”
Brian Snee, who has been working with the program for many years shares a similar experience.
A father approached him with a child who had never attended school because of poor vision.
A quick exam revealed prescription eyewear was needed and the child was able to go to school for the first time.
Snee said the expression on the child’s face when they tried on a sample pair of glasses for the first time was overwhelming.
“The child started to cry and so did I,” he said.
Those moments can be as powerful as helping a child find a pair of lenses to helping them get their first set of frames.
Once a pair of frames is chosen, a quick PD measurement is taken and added to the prescription. The final pair of glasses will be delivered in a month. If a pair of readers is all that’s called for then residents hand over a different piece of paper denoting the power.
The glasses are slipped on the face and residents are asked to read a few lines from a piece of paper. Smiles instantly fill their faces as they see the words come into focus. The success of the program is due on large part to the donations of time and materials by members of the Canadian optical industry.
As the day winds down a few last people wander in for an exam as word spreads about the clinic location. The temperature in the hall begins to cool as the numbers dwindle.
A quick picture is taken with the team and volunteers to mark another successful day.
The team has been through countless bottles of water and the fans now only recirculate warm air. But the heat has been forgotten as the team collects the equipment and loads it in the vans.
A few team members will return in January to deliver the new prescription glasses and make any necessary adjustments.
The ride back to the hotel is filled with discussion about some of the more difficult cases seen that day. A 10-year-old girl who is blind in one eye and going blind in the other. An 11-year-boy who will need cataract surgery. An older woman who hasn’t had a new pair of glasses in 20 years.
Though the team members involved have been doing work with CVC for many years, there is always a case that has a deep impact and reminds them why they are a part of the program.
In the span of a few days more than 1,000 people were checked and treated and there will be just as many people waiting for them when they return for the next clinic in 2015.
To learn more about how you can volunteer or provide supplies and equipment visit www.canadianvisioncare.com
By Sarah McGoldrick