Article Date: 9/1/2003

reflections THE HUMAN SIDE OF OPTOMETRY
On the Fifth Day
Jamaica offered this optometrist more than just beautiful scenery.
ERNIE BOWLING, O.D., M.S., F.A.A.O.
, SUMMERVILLE, GA.

I had answered an ad seeking optometric volunteers for a Christian medical mission to St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica. Missing out on a similar experience while in school, I decided to take a break from private practice and make the trip. However, the Jamaica I experienced was far from that pictured in travel brochures. Our group saw the island that the tourists never get to see from behind the resort's 12-foot concrete walls: Abject poverty, people living in pinewood huts with tin roofs, no utilities and little income.

Our group was divided into two forces: the surgeons who performed non-stop cataract surgeries and my crew, which performed assembly-line optometry. Anticipating our arrival, the hospital had been registering people for months. More than one hundred were registered for each day, with at least that many more hoping to be seen. People waited patiently in 110-degree heat on wooden benches outside of the clinic and at the end of each day, off they would go -- many returning the next morning.

ILLUSTRATION BY KAREN OPPATT

She sets up her vigil

I saw the old woman the first day. She was small and frail, dressed in a bright red blouse and white turban, sitting at the end of the bench. I nodded to her as I entered the building and she returned a small smile. She sat waiting on the bench all day, not making it through the clinic the first day, but there she was the next morning, parked on the same bench. I didn't think much of it, as I knew there were extra folks waiting for the opportunity to be seen. She didn't make it the second day, either.

The patient onslaught continued day after day. After hours, our group dealt with trying to sleep on cots at the sponsoring church in the sweltering summer night heat and strange food our stomachs didn't always like. Each day we pressed on and each morning the little old woman in the red blouse was waiting.

Just under the wire

By the fifth day we were exhausted but also excited (we were heading home the next morning). I dragged myself for the last time past the waiting crowd and again saw her sitting on the bench. I was determined not to leave until one of us saw that little old woman. Sure enough, after another hundred patients, she was the last person to sit in my chair.

Her current glasses provided only 20/200 acuity. Adding more plus allowed her to see 20/30 in either eye but small cataracts prevented her from seeing any better. I fit her with a pair of donated glasses close to what she needed and she looked out the window. Softly, she said in amazement, "I can see! Praise God, I can see!" Then she turned to me. "Thank you, doctor, for helping me see!"

Don't lose sight

I sat down right there on the floor and cried, overwhelmed by her joy and appreciation. I don't often encounter her reaction in my Georgia practice. Maybe we take too much for granted. While in our day-to-day routine we may not think about it, we optometrists have a gift. We have the ability to help people see. Having to cope with all the peripherals that accompany practice, we may lose sight of that. I know I did. But that little Jamaican woman helped me realize that what we can accomplish really is a wonderful gift.

DO YOU HAVE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE? DISCUSS YOUR STORY WITH RENÉ LUTHE, SENIOR ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF OPTOMETRIC MANAGEMENT, AT (215) 643-8132 OR LUTHER@BOUCHER1.COM.

 


Optometric Management, Issue: September 2003