Last February, a couple of memories really stuck with optometrist Larry Reed after his mission trip in Haiti.
Reed, who works at Blue Springs Optical, was recruited by another eye doctor in the Kansas City area to join a mission trip to help those in need. He vividly remembers one he met in particular – a five-month old baby whose eyes looked blue.
"Of course Haitians don't typically have blue eyes; they have dark brown eyes," Reed said. "She had infantile glaucoma. The cornea gets hazy and steamy and takes on a bluish color. The surgeon who operated on the five-month-old had never done a procedure like that before. Luckily we had an anesthesiologist there to put the baby to sleep. We had to do something because the baby could go blind in a year or two."
Reed along with Brett Dawson, an optometrist with Discover Vision Centers in Independence, went on a 10-day trip with the Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, which aims to assist those needing eye care.
They served hundreds of senior citizens, workers, families and orphans. The mission also provides citizens with food, over-the-counter medications and school supplies.
The mission serves a rural area called Saint-Louis-du-Nord in northwest Haiti, an agricultural area opposite of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The mission is a gathering place that offers medical and dental facilities, a birthing center, an orphanage, a school and programs for the elderly and those with disabilities.
The doctors who volunteer fly to Port-au-Prince, then take a small plane to Saint-Louis-du-Nord or travel by bus. Eye-care services are few and far between in Haiti, Dawson said.
"The people who live in and around Saint-Louis-du-Nord have limited access to health care. I wanted to find a way I could give back and help those in need," said Dawson, who made his fourth trip to Haiti, and got involved with the mission through the Abundant Life Church in Lee's Summit. “And this program gives me the ability to help while I do something that I love. I am confident that I can make an impact."
Many Haitians lined up at the mission building for help.
"There were about a 100 to 200 people lined up outside as soon as we woke up in the morning,” Reed said. “They have usually been there for several hours.”
The doctors first perform an eye exam to determine if the patient has an eye disease. The most common issues cataracts and glaucoma, Dawson said.
"I heard as high as 30 percent of the folks in Haiti have glaucoma, the more severe kind than we see here in the states,” he said. “It's just their genetic make up. We do surgeries for that and give out eye drops. We also do cataract surgeries. We try to be all-encompassing. We even have ocularists that make prosthetic eyes. We joke and call them the 'fake eye doctors.'"
The people who have eye surgery stay at the mission so they can be seen the next day. Those who get an exam pay an average day's wage in the country, which is $1 to $2. All of the money goes to the mission. For a surgery, patients pay $6.
"It's fun taking the patch (off their eye) the next morning, because they say it's bright at first, but they can see better," Dawson said. "Then in the next month, they get even better. We also have an Haitian opthamologist that will see them in a month after they are done."
"Unfortunately, poverty is very high there. The average patient lives on $2 per day. In the northwest area, they live on about a buck a day. They pay for about what a Happy Meal would be here for an eye surgery. We charge about a day's wage for eye exams because we found when we made it free, that there was either to many people showing up or not enough."
Dawson and Reed both have built relationships with the people in Haiti, and have enjoyed making the trip multiple times. The mission employs interpreters to help the doctors communicate with the patients, who mostly speak French Creole.
"It's pretty neat. I ask them if they have been using their drops and if their eyes are OK," Dawson said. "Then I can see what their vision is like after seeing us. The people are very nice and respectful. They are easy people to help. They are patient and kind."
"We try to employ some people from the town to do some things. A lot of them are young 20-year-olds. We try to encourage them to do something positive with their skills. We are encouraging them to give back to their community."
"The amount of poverty there is unbelievable," Reed said. "They are tremendous people. They have nothing, but a lot of them are Christian. They are happy people, and they take care of each other. It's nothing but a great experience every time I go."
And it won't be the last time for Reed.
"As long as I can keep going, I will," Reed said. "I am blessed to have the opportunity to do this."