I recently came back from a week long trip to Haiti. I was hoping to post blogs while I was there but due to spotty electricity and extremely slow internet, I did not get a chance to. On Sunday May 22, we landed in Port Au Prince with 4 optometrists and 14 volunteers (techs, students, opticians). We were greeted by a Haitian ophthalmologist name Dr. Pierre-Yves DeCastro. He was going to be working with us for the week seeing all our cataract patients. A picture of our team (including the Haitian volunteers and translators) is below:
From the airport, we travelled 2 hours up the west coast to a city called Pont Sonde, population 10,000 but with a metropolitan area of ~40,000. In the entire country of Haiti (pop 10 million), there are only 64 ophthalmologists and 2 optometrists. As you can imagine, there is a great need for eye care and eye health. Over the next 5 days, we saw over 1400 people and gave glasses, sunglasses, glaucoma medications, antibiotics, and antivirals to these patients. This trip was special to me because for the first time, we worked with a surgeon who provided free cataract surgery to patients. The surgery was free for patients, but we paid the ophthalmologist $50 a surgery. This would normally cost about $4000 in the USA. I am not talking about the patients who had 20/40 visual acuity and needed surgery to drive (like in the USA). I am talking about the patients who have light perception vision and cannot even see the "Big E" on the letter chart. In my next blog, I will talk about some of my most memorable patients.
"God bless you, for I can see again" is what one patient said to me after I removed her post op cataract surgery eye shield. Cataracts will occur to every single person on this planet if they live long enough. For some people, they will get cataract surgery at age 40, where as for others they will pass on before even having to deal with it. Inside a healthy eye, we have a clear lens. Due to sun damage, nutrition, and certain health factors, this clear lens can become yellow and cloudy. It will be so cloudy that putting glasses overtop does not help. I have gone on missions before when the patients have asked me, "doctor why am I going blind". It breaks my heart to have to tell them that there is nothing I could do about it. Such a quick 30 minute procedure in the USA is very difficult for people of underserved nations to have access to. On this trip, I was able to offer them cataract surgery in 1 eye so that they could at least have clear vision out of one eye.
My name is Brian Nguyen and I am the managing optometrist at Camarillo All Eyecare Optometry. I thought I would start a blog so that I could share my adventures with my patients, friends and family. As some of you may know, I am a strong advocate for eye care and eye health in underserved countries. I believe that vision is a privilege and not a right. So many of us take sight for granted that we don't realize the importance of it, until it is taken from us. I hope that through my mission trips, I can show you the importance of vision and how good sight can impact our culture, our economy, and our happiness.
I am excited to meet the community of Camarillo and hope you all stop by the office so we can chat about my adventures and about your expectations for your vision needs.
I never realized the true meaning of "giving the gift of sight" until my first mission trip in 2009 when I went to Haiti. In August 2009, I went as an undergrad student with a team of 4 optometrists and 10 volunteers. In five days we saw over 1100 patients and dispensed glasses to about 90% of them. The other 10% were medical patients who had glaucoma, cataracts, trachoma, conjunctivitis, viral infections, you name it....the list goes on.
My first experience when I was really touched was on the third day when an older gentleman, likely in his 70s, asked me why he was going blind. I determined that he had hypermature cataracts that needed removal. Because we were 5 hours away from the next major city and because the patient did not have money for cataract surgery, I had to tell him the reason he was going blind and that there was nothing I could do. It was difficult for me to know that such a simple 30 minute procedure in the US was so highly inaccessible for patients in underdeveloped nations.
This first trip really humbled me and showed me the need for eye care in nations such as Haiti. Which led me to my application to The New England College of Optometry in Boston, MA. I started optometry school in 2010.
In Haiti, glaucoma is a feared disease because it is very aggressive. Glaucoma, for the most part, is when there is an increase pressure in the eyes which causes damage to the optic nerve. A healthy optic nerve is crucial as it connects the eye to the brain. Patients who have glaucoma will slowly lose their peripheral vision. There is no cure for glaucoma but the main goal of treating a glaucoma patient is to detect the disease early so that we can initiate drops or perform surgery to lower the pressures. Sadly, most of the glaucoma patients walked into the clinic with already advanced end stage glaucoma. We use the term "glaucoma wobble" for when a patient wobbles into the clinic because he/she has no peripheral vision. They often bump into walls, hit into corners and are unable to detect difference in ground depth. We know instantly when a glaucoma patient walks into the clinic.
This gentleman came in with his daughter, also pictured in the photo. His pressures were 45 mmHg in both eyes. The normal eye pressure is between 14-16 mmHg. We gave him drops to lower the pressure in hopes of preserving what vision he had left. He also walks his daughter to school everyday. When I asked him how he sees where he is going, he said he knows the route from memory.
Since my first trip to Haiti, I have been on 6 other mission trips between 2009 and 2016. I have been blessed to be able to experience different cultures and interact with people from all around the world. I will recap some of my most memorable trips below:
1) El Salvador in 2010 - we were a team of 40 strong with a volunteer organization called OneSight. https://onesight.org/
In the 2 weeks we were there we saw over 10,000 patients. Below is a picture of some of the line ups in the morning (left). This little girl got custom glasses made to her prescription. Notice the circular lens, it allows us to turn the lens 360 to give her the correct astigmatism correction she needed to see clearly (right).
2) Dominican Republic 2013 - my first student trip as a third year student! We had 5 amazing doctors and 21 optometry students. Even though we were in Dominican Republic, most of the patients we saw were Haitian refugees living in Dominican. Below is a picture of me and some kids who were amazed by the forward facing camera on the Iphone 4 (left). We had set up various stations so that our exams were efficient and so we could see as many patients as possible. This is the refracting station where we would give the glasses prescriptions (right).
3) Billings, MT 2015 and National City, CA 2016 - these two trips were very different from my first few trips. In Billings and National City, we moved away from bringing recycled glasses and started manufacturing custom glasses for everyone! On both of these trips, we saw mainly kids. Most of these kids' parents had been told from the school nurse that they needed glasses but due to lack of funds or resources, the kids never received any glasses. We saw over 1200 kids on each trip and manufactured glasses for over 80% of them. Eye exams were conducted on Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs and glasses were handed out on Fri. Below are only some of the kids we gave eye exams to. Some of them had been diagnosed with learning deficits when all along it was because they could not focus and see the board! You can just imagine the look on some of these kids when we put glasses on them for the first time, especially the boy in the last picture.