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Mission trip to Haiti an eye-opening experience

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I like to think that I live my life by my favorite quote from Mother Teresa, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” This, in conjunction with an addiction to the feeling of selfless joy that comes from helping others, fueled my desire to join a meaningful mission.

As an aspiring optometrist, the feeling that comes from an altruistic act such as enabling someone to see the world clearly for the first time is what drew me to the optometry field years ago. Therefore, it was impossible to say no when the chance arose.

At the end of May, I was given the life changing opportunity by my parents to travel to Haiti with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity.

For those that have never been to Haiti, I essentially gave up TV, WiFi, air conditioning, potable water from anything other than a sealed bottle, my electric toothbrush and many other everyday luxuries that we as privileged Americans consider a “necessity.”

I gave it all up for seven days to hop on a plane and travel abroad with 15 complete strangers to assist in performing free eye exams for Haitians. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

My first thought as our plane was landing in Port au Prince, Haiti, was that the area looked abandoned. I watched out the window as our plane descended at land that looked lifeless and forgotten. Those were the exact words I wrote in my journal: “lifeless” and “forgotten.”

Time would prove that one of those adjectives was dead wrong, and the other was spot on.

LEARNING AND HELPING

Over the course of the next five days, our group saw a total of 1,585 patients, which was about a hundred more patients than a typical VOSH group sees on a mission. We dispensed a total of 1,126 prescription eyeglasses, covered expenses for 79 patients to receive cataract surgery and 22 patients to receive glaucoma surgery, and handed out hundreds of sunglasses and hats for protection against the sun.

We spent two days at a medical clinic, one day at a Voodoo temple in Lachikot, one day at a church in Villard and the last half day at the Hope School for Haiti in Montrouis. I had the privilege to travel one day to Port au Prince with the patients receiving cataract surgery. While there I was able to watch the doctor perform cataract surgery on five patients, a procedure I hadn’t even witnessed in the United States. Through a teaching lens I was able to watch the procedure and ask questions.

Throughout our mission we saw a variety of eye diseases, most of which are rare or uncommon here in the United States. For example, trachoma is an eye infection that occurs in both eyes that is caused by a bacterium called ​chlamydia trachomatis​. When this infection goes untreated irreparable damage is done to the eye.

The poor living conditions and sanitation of the Haitians provides an unfortunate breeding environment for this disease and others such as conjunctivitis (pink eye) that are highly contagious. We saw many diseases that were likely genetic including retinitis pigmentosa, keratoconus and, most devastating, bilateral congenital cataracts.

On the last day at Hope School, we had a 2-year-old female who was born with bilateral congenital cataracts. She was completely blind in both eyes, but her smile and spirit could light the world. Being blind and that young made it really hard for her to trust, but if you held her she hung on to you out of pure comfort. Our group leader hoped to find a pediatric ophthalmologist to perform her surgery that would also be paid for by VOSH.

It was truly amazing the number of patients we saw with 20/100 acuity or worse and who had probably lived with vision that poor all of their life. Our work allowed us the chance to make a difference in these people’s lives by giving them glasses. Some people received two pairs of glasses, one for distance and another for reading because we did not have bifocals.

Patients with infections were given various antibiotic/steroid drops as samples with a prescription for a refill if they needed it. In Haiti, most pharmacies will refill a prescription as long as the original bottle or container is presented. That is just one of the many differences between our health care system and theirs. We saw many age-related cataract patients but could not provide surgery for them all. Same with glaucoma patients. We saw about a hundred cases but were only able to refer 22 for surgery. It was devastating to experience so much need and still not be able to fulfill that need completely.

‘AMAZED BY THE PEOPLE’

Overall, I consistently found myself mesmerized. I expected the feeling to eventually wear off as the days went by, but it didn’t and still doesn’t a month later. I was shocked at the immediate need of every person I saw. It was a circumstance that photos and stories from other people could never prepare you for.

I caught myself constantly taking tons of photos of trash. Yes, trash, because they had no waste management system. At times they would burn it directly in the streets, and what wasn’t put into somewhat organized piles was lying around everywhere.

Even the streams and rivers the Haitians bathe in were heavily polluted with an unimaginable amount of trash, so it is no surprise that disease and infection were prevalent.

The longer I stayed and the more I learned about the history of Haiti, the more I resented their government. It is truly disheartening to see such a beautiful country populated by people with the brightest smiles who are let down each and every day by their government. Our government in America is by no means perfect or wonderful, but I assure you it could be worse.

My patience with hearing others gripe about our government now that I have experienced Haiti is almost non-existent. However, above everything I was amazed by the people.

We were fortunate enough to have six translators for the week, and getting to know them was probably my favorite part of the whole trip. They were bright, well-educated, full of life and just genuine people. It took me a while to understand why they would want to willingly stay in Haiti for the rest of their lives when they have the opportunity to thrive here in the U.S. or, honestly, anywhere, but to them they feel they have a duty to their country to stay and help make Haiti a better place. For that reason alone, Haiti is very fortunate.

Although I could sit here and type for days on the things I saw and experienced while in Haiti, none of it matters because there is still so much that can be done to help those people. When I came back from Haiti, I was asked by many people if I was glad to be home. My answer every time was yes, I was glad to be home to the various amenities and luxuries I have here, but I felt guilty because I felt like I should still be there doing something or anything to help them.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE

It is my belief that everyone should experience a mission trip such as this once in their lifetime. Therefore, I encourage everyone to take a mission trip of any kind, help raise money, send supplies or more specifically make a donation at schoolsforhaiti.com to give back to those people in need.

Our last night in Haiti while we sat around and hung out with the group of translators before saying our good byes, they taught us a song that we all sang together: “The time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make someone happy and to have a little heaven down here.”

Because of this opportunity I now have many precious memories forever engraved in my heart and new friendships to last a lifetime. I was able to grow personally, spiritually and scholarly to a level that even makes myself proud.

This was truly the opportunity of a lifetime that I will treasure forever as it further solidified my career choice and dedication to the optometry field. A mission trip like this will always be my way of doing small things with great love!

Courtney Davis, daughter of Tim and Terry Davis, is a graduate of Hunt High School and N.C. State University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, human biology concentration.

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