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It's after 6:30 p.m. and night has fallen fast. Inside the dusty cinderblock room, fluorescent lights flutter as the power dips and surges. Optometrist Abby Quinn drags her chair closer to her patient. "?Que mejor, uno o dos?" she asks. Ileana Cano Cerdo hesitates, unsure how she should respond. This is the 63-year-old housewife's first eye exam and the question confuses her. Dr. Quinn, her face worn with exhaustion, holds a glass lens in front of the woman's right eye, then quickly replaces it with another of different strength. She has asked this question at least a thousand times in the past two days but her voice is still encouraging and kind. "Which is better, one or two?"
In 2003, when Dr. Quinn first traveled to the tiny fishing village of San Juan del Sur, in Nicaragua, from her home in Connecticut, she didn't speak a word of Spanish and knew almost nothing about Central America. But what she knew for certain was that she was needed. A colleague, optometrist Matthew Blondin, and his wife, Audrey, had founded a Connecticut chapter of Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) two years earlier and were looking for recruits. Volunteers would have to give up a week from their practice to travel to Nicaragua, set up an eye clinic, and examine hundreds of patients, most of whom live in extreme poverty and have never had an eye exam or access to any type of medical care. Dr. Blondin's sales pitch wasn't exactly tempting: Doctors would have to work long days with limited resources, stay in no-star hotels, and pay their own way.
"I live a fairly privileged life and I'd never been to a third-world country, so I thought the experience would be a good reality check," says Dr. Quinn, a 48-year-old mother of three.
What she got was more like a rude awakening. On her first day of work hundreds of people were already waiting in line when the clinic doors opened at 8 a.m. While performing eye exams and prescribing glasses, Dr. Quinn also diagnosed cataracts and glaucoma and tried to explain diabetic retinopathy to poorly educated and often-illiterate patients. She quickly learned a practical, if curious, Spanish vocabulary: the words for blurry (borroso), clear (claro), itchy (que pica), and headache (dolor de cabeza).
"I examined one 40-year-old man who could only see about four inches from his nose; the rest of the world was a big blur. He'd lived his whole life that way," she says. "We met two young sisters who had been told they were stupid, but in reality they just couldn't read the words on the blackboard. A cab driver came in who couldn't see the big E on the eye chart because he'd developed cataracts. It was scary...and heartbreaking."
That first night Dr. Quinn retreated to a windowless hotel room that was crawling with all sorts of critters, including tarantulas (one was living in her bed). At the clinic she ate rice and fried fish with the head still attached. Though it was a world apart from her comfortable life in America, she loved every minute of it.
Today the hotel rooms are better and the mission has grown. This year six optometrists, two opticians, eight optometry students, and several translators made the trip. Sixty four boxes of supplies -- 3,000 pairs of donated glasses, 3,000 sunglasses, baseball caps, toys, and clothes among them -- were shipped ahead of the team's arrival. Optometrist Brian Lynch supplied about 1,000 pairs of reading glasses, and optician Mareshah Lynch brought more than 1,100 eyeglass cases hand sewn by a local quilting guild in Newport, Maine. Dr. Quinn's 18-year-old daughter, Olivia, came along to volunteer in the makeshift dispensary. Sometimes it takes a village to help a village.
But the growing resources can hardly match the desperate need in Nicaragua. At this year's clinic hundreds of people heard about the "clinico gratis" (free clinic) and traveled long distances.
Enrique Ortiz Portoy and his wife, Juana Gonzalez, poor farmers, journeyed by boat, bus, and taxi to get an eye exam. As parents of six children, three of whom have died, the two have never been able to afford any type of medical care. After standing on line for seven hours, Enrique, 47, learns he needs bifocals, while Juana, 46, receives reading glasses and eyedrops. Since they work outside in the fields, they also take home sunglasses to protect their eyes from the equatorial sun.
Francisco Rillos, 15, is extremely nearsighted. His life has been miserable since he broke his only pair of glasses. After the doctors give him a new pair, he runs off to ride his bicycle for the first time in months. A 4-year-old with strabismus (crossed eyes) needs special glasses to correct the problem; optician Dottie Byus will have a customized pair made in the United States. Ileana Cano Cerdo, the housewife who was mystified by "?Que mejor, uno o dos?" needs glaucoma medicine. Without it she will slowly go blind.
Cases like these remind the team of the true meaning of their mission. "You're not just giving people an eye exam or a pair of glasses," Dr. Blondin says to the optometry students in the group. "In many cases you are saving or restoring their sight." For the Nicaraguan people, a visit from VOSH volunteers can ultimately provide the opportunity to learn to read, get a job, and take better care of themselves and their family.
"The patients are so gracious and thankful for any help we provide," says Dr. Quinn, who adds that the staff feels fortunate as well. "You gain an appreciation for your life. If everyone did their own little bit to help -- and looked upon the world not as us and them but as we -- there would be so much more that we could do."
This month's Do-Good Challenge: Your local Lions Club collects pairs of used -- but usable -- eyeglasses, so visit LHJ.com/dogood to learn more and find a drop-off site near you. Then sign up for our easy weekly challenges to do even more good!
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.