Volume XII, Issue Two | June 2017 For the past 10 years, my daughter Dana has volunteered to work in an eyeglasses clinic in Central America, run by New Orleans Medical Mission Services. NOMMS sends doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and other volunteers to Nicaragua for one week twice a year to perform surgeries and to hand out eyeglasses. Dana now heads the eyeglass clinic in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Her sister, Povy, accompanied her a couple of years ago. This year, I went with her. “La Jefa” is embroidered on Dana’s scrubs. Mine read “La Madre de La Jefa.” It lent a certain cache if not competence to my work. Some 40 of us flew to Nicaragua in March, then made the two-hour bus ride to Matagalpa, past tropical flowers, horse-drawn carts, goats and donkeys, and metal shacks painted bright colors, that serve as houses. Next to Haiti, Nicaragua is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but you wouldn’t know that from the kindness and generosity of the people.
NOMMS had spent months preparing for the trip—acquiring and packing surgical equipment and supplies, for instance. Dana spent the year collecting eyeglasses from individuals and organizations such as Lions Clubs. The glasses are marked and organized by prescription, then boxed and shipped to Nicaragua with us. We had some 10,000 pairs of glasses. Dana and another volunteer hand-carried the auto refactors. We arrived on Saturday, and Sunday we set up.
When we got to the clinic Monday morning to begin work, we were greeted by hundreds of patients, some of whom had been in line since 5 a.m., waiting to be fitted with glasses. They were friendly and greeted us with, “Buenas dias.” I was nervous. Although Dana had explained the procedure, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. First a volunteer uses an auto refractor to determine the patient’s prescription. The patient gives a piece of paper with the prescription on it to a volunteer such as me, who finds the appropriate box of glasses. The glasses are organized by right eye prescription. If the right eye reads +3.5 (don’t ask me what that means), you take down that box, then rummage through it until you find a pair of glasses with a prescription for the left eye.
It’s not that simple, however. Because of the heat and high usage, the auto refractor isn’t always accurate. Then a patient who has never worn glasses may recoil and say the lenses are too strong. (In five days in the clinic, I had only one patient who said the lenses were too weak.) So you go through half-a-dozen boxes to find the right fit. And of course there are some patients who say the glasses are too strong because they don’t like the frames. All you have to do is look at an 18-year-old woman in tight jeans and make-up to know she’s going to recoil if you try to fit her with a pair of oversized glasses from the 1970s. My pickiest patient, however, was a 17-year-old man, who after trying on seven or eight pairs of glasses, decided the first pair fit fine. (It had the coolest frames.)
Some of the volunteers, including Dana, spoke Spanish. I’d taken two years of it in high school, but all I could remember was how to ask for the bathroom. I memorized a few key phrases, such as “too strong” and “too weak,” but they didn’t get me anywhere. Fortunately, for nonSpanish speakers, there were interpreters. That was absolutely necessary, because some people wanted to tell the history of their eyes. And in certain cases, we had to explain we didn’t have glasses that worked for them—a fellow with a +14.5 prescription, for instance. (I think that’s close to blind.) Instead of sending them away empty-handed, however, we offered readers or sunglasses. I asked one woman if she wanted readers, and she shook her head, saying, “I can’t read.” So I quickly asked if she wanted glasses for sewing.
The experience was extraordinary. Patients asked God to bless us for our work. Two of my patients were a mother and her five-year-old son. I found glasses for the woman, but the boy’s eyes were good, and after testing him, I had to tell him he saw better without glasses than with the weakest prescription in the box. He was on the verge of tears, because he wanted glasses so much. We gave him a pair of sunglasses. They covered most of his face, but we could still see the huge grin when he put them on. After Dana fitted an elderly woman with glasses, the patient took out a tiny Bible from her purse and opened it, a look of rapture on her face, because she had not been able to read the Bible for 10 years.
It’s a cliché to say I got as much out of the experience as the patients, but I did—and more. I got out of bed in the middle of the night to turn down the air conditioning, tripped over a suitcase, and slammed the side of my face on the tile floor. Who knew your head bled so much? Fortunately, a NOMMS plastic surgeon sewed me up in the morning, and I was able to milk the black eye for a month.
I already sent in my application for next year. Somebody else will have to be in charge of the air conditioning, however. —SD