EyeCare Project to Peru, July 2019

 

July 1, 2019

Happy Canada day from Peru

As most of you know, today I am starting a 2 week vision project in the Andean foothills outside of Lima, Peru.

A group of 21 of us from Canada and the US will be serving the communities of Jicamarca and Canto Grande in pop-up style eye clinics in underprivileged areas that have no access to eyecare or glasses. We have brought with us over ten thousand pairs of glasses to distribute, and will be doing literally thousands of eye exams.  

It feels cool to start this project on Canada Day in particular, and also feels a bit easier to appreciate Canada looking through the prism of a trip like this. And I don’t only mean appreciating the beauty, the high standard of living, and all the rights and privileges we enjoy- though those are very clear too.  I am proud to live in a country that celebrates diversity in all aspects: this team comes from all different ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds and ages-in fact, 2 team members are over 70 and 5 are under 19.

I am also proud that as Canadians we recognize the importance of respecting all humanity, and of protecting equal rights for all.  There are 6 doctors on this team, and I am the only man. The leader of this project-Dr. Marina Roma March is a global example of what strong, compassionate women can do when placed in leadership positions.  I’m proud that our team can be progressive role models for people in areas of the world that don’t enjoy the type of equality that we do. 

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On my most recent eye project to Costa Rica, we operated our clinic out of a community center in a refugee neighbourhood. There were many local refugee women that worked at that center cooking and cleaning, and they watched us each day as we worked. At the end of the trip they told us that they had never seen men and women act towards each other as our group did; and seeing Marina as the head person in charge was inspirational to them. This was such a pleasant, unexpected benefit of the work we did there. 

Joining me on this trip is an old optometry school friend of mine, Rene from Minnesota, who I went on my very first eye project to south eastern Mexico over 25 years ago. It has been awesome to catch up with her (and sneak off for an extra pisco sour at the bar while the others shopped!), and she is a very clear reminder that there are awesome people all over the world who are happy to give their time to help others. 

Before I left, my friend Trevor reminded me of a Mr. Roger’s saying that I have always quoted:

“Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind?  You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind.  All you have to do is think and they will grow”

I like to think that a trip like this will fertilize the garden of my mind.  And I’m happy to share it with all of you that I love!

Happy Canada Day, Peace, love, and I’ll send more soon!!

July 3, 2019:

The traffic in Lima is chaotic and dizzying, and the only traffic rule seems to be the bigger car gets the right of way. 

The honking is like a constant conversation, and although it is aggressive driving, there doesn’t seem to be the same level of road rage as at home. 

The bus ride to the clinic in the morning is close to two long hours, but there is something interesting to see in every direction you look. The amazing use of bright colors in everyday use (imagine painting your entire house bright fuschia or beautiful turquoise) contrasts with the apparent difficulty of everyday life in some of these areas. 

Yesterday we set up our clinic in a community where people build small homes terraced into the aird foothills. All of these homes do not have plumbed water access, so the higher up the hill the less desirable the location (the further to transport water to their home on a daily basis)-it’s basically the polar opposite of how we live in Canada, where mountain view homes are status symbols. Imagine access to water dictating your life every single day, it’s hard to reconcile the impact that would have. It was an eerily beautiful place:

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Today we moved our clinic to a school in Jicamarca, and we examined close to 600 people in that neighborhood, about 300 of these being school kids that looked something like this:IMG_0514

A couple patients stand out in my mind from today: this 28 year old guy, Freddy, had vision out of only his right eye (the left eye had a traumatic cataract since he was young)-and he hasn’t had glasses in over 10 years. He is a 12 diopter myope, meaning that without glasses he is incredibly visually impaired:

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How has he managed to function over that last decade without these glasses?  How did he even make it to our clinic? 

I’m just happy he did. 

Another woman I examined today was also incredibly near sighted…..even more than my new friend Freddy, at over 15 diopters of myopia. She did have a pair of glasses, but they were extremely scratched, and in terrible condition. A patient at our clinic in Vancouver had donated her old spectacles (shout out to Mary McC!) and they were absolutely perfect for this lovely Peruvian woman:

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To be able to bring something from home, donated from a long time patient, across the equator to a woman in need is a very special thing that I do not take for granted. 

#Synchronicity-coincidences that have spiritual meaning to the person who experiences them. I’m feeling that right now. 

Like many parts of the world there  are free roaming dogs everywhere, most of them stray, but many of them wearing tshirts and pajamas like these ones in the pictures-maybe as a symbol of ownership. It makes me smile every time. My dog Josie literally has no idea how lucky she has it. 

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Then again, I usually don’t realize how lucky I have it as well.

July 5, 2019:

The traffic. The traffic. I cannot over state it. It takes us over two hours back and forth to our clinic site, and it is an aggressive, honking, jerking driving affair. How on earth there are not more accidents is beyond us all. 

The first thing we typically do when we arrive to check our driver’s visual acuity, and I’m happy to report he is 20/20. 

It is winter here, so it is foggy and very humid most days. It is so humid that my normal process of washing clothes each day doesn’t work as they don’t dry overnight. I washed my socks and underwear after our first day and they still aren’t dry 4 days later.  Maybe that is a mute point as the next 3 days in Lima there is a water restriction so we may not be able to shower or launder anything. yikes.

Re-wearing dirty clothes is something that is to be taken in stride, just as is the one non-flushing toilet that we all have to share throughout the day. Nothing binds a group like intimate sharing of elimination!! #thisisintense 

We have seen over 1500 patients in the last 3 days. That is as epic as it sounds. Believe me, my body and mind feel every one of those eye exams!  However, today was a very satisfying day as we saw so many people in need. 

On previous trips I have always been amazed by our “magic box” of glasses and low vision devices- meaning that all of the things we have packed up over the months leading up to this trip seem to be magically just what we need in the moment:

This woman was 12 years old when she last had glasses- she fell and they broke and she has never been able to replace them. Her prescription is -18.00. How could we possibly have the correct thing for her?!  It must be magic. Or God. Or the Universe, or spirit, or whatever you call it. 

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With her is a young optometrist from New Mexico, Elizabeth, who worked on this with me. The look on this woman’s face when she finally put on this pair of glasses will stay with me for the rest of my life

 

What endures me through the day is a sense of humor (and also the promise of a beer at the end of the day). I am working with a great, compassionate, and fun group of people and we joke around as we work through the clinic at a grueling pace. None of us speak Spanish very well, and it is comical how we butcher our way through our communication with the locals. An optometrist from Michigan, Rita and I have been laughing as we say only to each other: los cientos no los cientos…..which we think means: “sorry, not sorry”. I’m not sure that translates, but we smile at each other and laugh as we face the hundreds of people ahead of us that need our service. 

July 14, 2019:

I have just finished a 14 hour day, a long winding bus ride home, and after two beers we are all giggling like school kids. I think we are all punch drunk. Rene took this picture of a young girl in the clinic this afternoonbecause her shirt was so unexpected, and we have been giggling at it all day:

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Keeping your mind open to seeing the unexpected in the routine is a part of fertilizing the garden of your mind, and somehow this feels like fun version of that. I am having so much fun reconnecting with Rene and sharing this experience with her.  We share a perverse, but compassionate view of the human condition.  

We saw over 600 people today in a new neighborhood called Canto Grande.  People came from many miles away, mostly from down in the hills, and this is an even poorer area than where we have been the last several days. When you look off into the hills above the school where we have set up our clinic, it looks very beautiful in a way, but when you zoom in on the details it really is such a harsh, dry, rough existence. 

The people we are serving have been completely lovely, and so gracious and thankful.  As we work through such a huge volume of patients it requires a constant, diligent mindset to remember to see people as individuals and not just sets of eyes that need to be examined over and over and over and over and over. 

I try to always remind myself to afford each person the dignity of seeing them as an individual. 

I believe that as humans we are energetic beings, and that the potential to affect each other’s energy without speaking is both a gift and a responsibility- I am trying to emanate respect, kindness and a healing vibe. And I am feeling this back from the hundreds standing in line waiting to get to my station. 

Life appears very hard here in the Andean foothills. And it is harder for some than for other. Even here there are the haves, and the have-nots.  The poorest of the poor can be treated badly by the others;  scorned and generally not afforded any status whatsoever, including wanting to have them not hold their place in line. When I can, it makes me happy to dignify these poorest people with recognition and any little bit of status I can pass on to them. Sometimes just calling them Senor/Senorita, touching their shoulders, or moving them up in line seems like the least I can do.

Our magic box continues to provide what seems to be needed, when it is needed, how it is needed. I saw a legally blind 17 year old girl today who has been struggling with her whole life, defined by her blindness.  We were able to provide her with some high-end North American devices that I hope will change and empower her life goi g forward. She has nystagmus, and is very uncomfortable and light sensitive and she was so happy with the simple sunglasses we gave her (they were very fashionable and were pink) that she essentially glossed over the much more significant low vision devices that may have a bigger impact on her life in the long run. But everyone wants to look good, and this blind girl in Canto Grande was feeling her look in these sunglasses. She insisted I take a picture of us on my phone (not even hers). #Gogirl

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Feeling very grateful, but also very tired.