Eye Care Mission to Costa Rica , November 2018
First day of clinic done:
The last 24 hours have been a blur of airports, buses and all of a sudden I am in the jungle very near to the equator. We finally arrived to our (very nice) hotel in San Jose about midnight local time, and we were up at 5 am to eat breakfast, and set up the clinic to start seeing patients by 8. Our first 3 days are going to be in La Carpio, which has the reputation of being one of the “worst ghettos in Central America”. I have to admit that description had been giving me some anxiety before leaving on this trip. I was trying to stay optimistic that everything would be all right, but that description created uncertainty in my mind, and gave me some cause for worry. After spending the first day in La Carpio, let’s just say this, here are the faces of a couple refugee migrants living in this ghetto:
There has been so much in the news lately about refugees and human migration-and these groups are often cast as criminals, gang members, and poor people bringing disease. It’s too easy (for me as well) to paint with a broad stroke, and not see people as individuals. But of the hundreds of people we served today, there were moms and dads with new babies, old people with very poor vision and no access to glasses, giggling teen girls, and generally hardworking, respectful people just living the life that has been put in front of them.
I’m certain there is a lot of trauma and heartache that happens in La Carpio, (and the path that takes you there in the first place) and I am not about to move there from my comfortable home in kits….but, people are people, and except for the luck of where I was born I can totally see myself in their place. The significance of looking directly into each person’s eyes is not lost on me.
Here is another picture from the clinic today of a woman who was so happy with her glasses and new vision that she worked her way backwards through the line up to give me a hug before she left. It warmed my heart and reminds me of why these trips are such a nice part of my life.
Also in this picture is Dr. Marina Roma March, our team leader and one of my personal hero’s. She has done dozens of these trips all over the globe over the last 2 decades and she told me yesterday that this trip was important because she felt it was time to “refuel her empathy” which had been chipped away through her day to day and practice life. It’s a great thought, and an inspiring lesson.
I came home from the clinic today and this is what I did: walked into the shower with all my clothes on, rinsed them off, then showered myself, then washed all my clothes by hand and hung them to dry. Not very glamorous, but really pretty efficient! (Note the drying compression socks and handkerchiefs-I have officially become my dad!)
All of my allotted baggage for this trip is made up of our eyeglass library and equipment, so I am only allowed to bring 1 carry on of personal effects-so I have to hand wash my clothes at night to get them back into rotation next day. Already another lesson: I don’t need nearly as much stuff as I have!
I’m feeling healthy, and I love the beans and rice- I hope it becomes a staple while I’m here.
Our clinic site in La Carpio has been set up in essentially what is a community center, and this is a child’s drawing that is hanging up right beside my station:
My translator told me that it essentially means that “the heart always breaks in La Carpio”. It’s a pretty uncomfortable image for me to work beside all day, but it kind of keeps my mind in the right perspective. A mental reminder is good, because each day we see around 400 people at my triage station, and I try my best to see each person as an individual with a life full of stories, happy events, traumas and heartbreaks.
On a lighter note, this kid has been hanging around our station all day, and he is straight-up awesome:
He found this piece of junk wire somewhere and he has been acting like it is a microphone receiver that he is translating messages on.
Also awesome is this dog that slept underneath our triage table for a good part of the afternoon:
I guess he felt safe, and I don’t dare tell him how comfortable my own dogs have it at home!!
This woman was a 3 diopter myope, and she was thrilled not only with her vision, but also with how great these donated glasses looked on her. Her son is literally a bundle of light:
At home I practice meditation to try and keep my mind balanced, and over years of practicing I think it all basically boils down to trying to live in the moment (not thinking about the past, and not worrying about the future). A thing I have noticed about being on these trips over the years is that you cannot help but live in the moment. You are forced to be in the moment because there is a constant stream of people to serve, and you have to stay alert and present. So each day feels like a meditation in a way. At the end of the day I am sweaty, dirty, tired, and spent-but somehow it brings a sense of peace.
A very common saying in Costa Rica is “Pura Vida”. People say it as hello, or if someone asks how you are doing, you would say it to mean everything is cool. The locals say it is a lifestyle as much as a greeting-a relaxed, simple way of looking at life.
Tonight we have packed up our clinic in La Carpio and tomorrow at 5am we head east for a 3 hour drive through the mountains to serve an indigenous group called Cabecar. I miss home, but I am having a great experience, and our team is one of the best groups I have experience in any trip so far.
Follow me to the Jungle:
The last 2 days are the deepest I have ever been into a real jungle.
After a long, winding, early-morning drive through a mountain range, we set up our first clinic site in an outdoor Cabecar church in an area called Tajo Chirripo.
A unique trait of the indigenous Cabecar is that their homes are not clustered together, but rather spread out through the mountains.To gather, (and to get to our clinic site) most people have to trek back and forth across a fairly wide and fast moving river. Our guide told us that it also has snakes in it (!), so people really appreciate rubber boots which I guess snakes can’t bite through. Whoa. Remember how all our parents used to say they had to walk miles to school in the snow…..?!???
So, anyway, a special thank you to those of you who donated boots and runners for us to bring along on this trip. We gave your donations to the community head who distributed them to people after they moved through our clinic. I collected over 80 pairs in just 10 days- a testament to how many wonderful people I have in my life. (and a special shout out to Dawn and her son Ian’s classmates!)
This guy loved his “new” boots!
One of the teen Cabecar girls we saw in the clinic turned out to be a 10 diopter myope (very, very nearsighted). Her new glasses are literally going to be life changing. I can’t even begin to imagine how she would navigate this river crossing without such strong glasses. It made every second of travel to get to this remote spot feel completely worthwhile.
There are officially 8 indigenous groups in Costa Rica, 4 of whom have maintained their own language, and one of these is the Cabecar. Luckily most also speak a fair amount of Spanish. I only speak what could be called TWECS-Spanish: look up, look down, don’t look at my light, you need glasses for distance, you have a cataract, please go to station 6, etc. Sometimes I catch myself off guard when I string several of these together and the person is nodding along with me as they understand. I often end with: yah? And they usually say back: yah. That part seems universal.
Here was today’s clinic-dog:
The Final Wrap Up:
We wrapped up our trip back in La Carpio with one of the most satisfying clinic days ever. Often word of mouth spreads about what we are doing, and near the end we see the people who ultimately need our service the most.
We saw around 600 people that last day, and several were very remarkable.
One was a young father irreparably blind in one eye, with a traumatic injury to his good eye that happened about a year ago. He came in with his wife and young baby, and was only able to discern what we call “count fingers” about 2 feet in front of his face.
Each trip we bring one box of “low vision devices” donated from legally blind people in Canada, and that box is full of quite custom odds and ends, and it seems to have some magical (or spiritual) power. A combination of several high powered lenses from that box improved this man’s distance vision to a much more functional, but not perfect, state. With several other small but strong custom magnifiers he was actually able to read pretty well, and clearly see his son’s face for the first time since the injury. We were almost as happy as he was. It honestly feels like some other power is working through us.
Another patient was a young boy, maybe around 10, in a wheelchair who had such bad scarring on the front of his eyes from corneal ulcers that we really didn’t hold much hope.
After sometime of showing him a variety of strong stand magnifiers (again from that box) he quickly became so engrossed the the kids picture book we were using to trial him that he tuned all of us out while his mother beamed. It was a really magical moment.
This has been such a rewarding trip all around- amidst the poverty and challenging situations I have felt surround by kindness and tenderness of our team towards not only the people we have met, but also to each other.
I have felt compassion and understanding, especially for people being forced from their own home country.
And I have found beauty in surprising places.
I have been practicing creativity daily, not just in how I have to improvise my eyecare, but also in the newness of each day and in every direction I look.
And I think I have evolved how I see myself and what I am capable of.
I hope you have all enjoyed some of the stories and pictures from this trip. I can’t wait to be back at home and am bringing a new appreciation of my wonderful life.