A Ladysmith optometrist recently helped more than 3,000 people in rural Ecuador see better.
Dr. Johnathan Lam of VisionArts Eyecare in Ladysmith recently returned from Ecuador, where he volunteered for an Eye Care for Ecuador mission with the Vancouver-based Third World Eye Care Society (TWECS).
On Oct. 30, Lam and 18 other volunteers departed Vancouver International Airport for Quito, Ecuador. The eight doctors and 11 staff volunteers spent two and a half weeks in Ecuador and offered eye clinics in a rural community about half an hour outside of Santa Dominica, with help from the Rotary Club in Ecuador.
Lam says during the entire mission, they probably saw about 3,300 patients, including lots of school children.
During these clinics, the volunteers gave out thousands of pairs of eyeglasses, which had been donated to TWECS in communities like ours.
“A lot of people don’t have access to eyeglasses,” said Lam. “Worldwide, lack of glasses is a big cause of blindness. We go down with 10,000 pairs of glasses, all catalogued, all donated by people.”
Lam says they saw about 600 people each day.
“There were lots of kids, lots of undetected prescriptions on this mission,” he said. “We saw lots of kids who were getting eyeglasses for the first time.”
In a country like Ecuador, new eyeglasses have a major impact, as they can help a family keep earning money and supporting themselves, explained Lam.
“Often times, as a form of income, ladies would do handicrafts, and they get to an age where they can’t see as well,” he said. “They can’t do the work. Give them a simple pair of reading glasses, and they’re back at work, supporting their families. For the kids, it’s the matter of learning and being at school. It’s something we take for granted.”
“The nice thing about the results of these missions is when someone receives a pair of glasses, they can make it last,” he added. “It makes such a difference in their lives.”
During the clinic days, the people in Ecuador would register, and then the volunteers would do visual acuities and test the patients for their prescription and for eye disease. If they needed glasses, they would get them. If the patients’ eyes were not healthy, the mission volunteers could refer them to a local surgeon who could help them.
Lam says they donated clothing during the mission as well.
Lam says screening is a big part of these missions, as they can help make the local residents aware of how well they could see with a bit of help.
“Often, they don’t know they need glasses or that they can get help,” he said. “Also, it puts to good use glasses that are at the end of their lifespan here. We encourage people to drop off old glasses because they can be used again.”
While in Ecuador, members of the TWECS mission spent time in three different regions – the coastal lowlands, the Amazon rainforest, and into the Andean highlands.
“Ecuador is a beautiful country, and it was nice to see these different areas and meet the locals,” said Lam. “They were very appreciative of the help we gave. Because we were in very remote areas, their access to health care was limited. It’s a nice thing to do, like a working vacation.”
Lam says his favourite thing about doing a mission like this is “meeting a variety of great people, within our team of volunteers, the local volunteers who helps us, and the local population,” as well as seeing someone’s reaction when they get glasses for the first time and knowing he has helped.
Lam also feels happy to be able to fill a need he sees is definitely there.
“The health care that we often take for granted as so readily available here is not available there,” he said. “It’s so remote, or they don’t have the money.”
Lam, who has been rotating practice in Ladysmith and Nanaimo since 2001, has volunteered on six other eye care missions in the past, including one other mission with TWECS to Nicaragua in March and one two years before that to Nicaragua. He has been on four eye care missions to Mexico.
Anyone in the Ladysmith area who would like to donate old eyeglasses for future TWECS missions can drop them off at VisionArts Eyecare, where they will find a donation box.
The TWECS volunteers kept a blog about their mission, and you can read about it here.