The Gift of Sight
A Rude Awakening
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.