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For Your Eyes Only Focusing on making a difference

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Dr. Marissa Knutson

Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2013 8:57 pm

Have you ever donated your old eyeglasses and wondered what really happens to them?

In August, I had the opportunity to travel to the Ixcan region of Guatemala with two organizations: Enfoque Ixcan and Pacific University’s Amigos Eye Care. We spent a week providing eye care to those less fortunate.

The Ixcan region is right underneath Mexico in the very northwest corner of Guatemala. It is a jungle region with unpaved mountain roads, lacking many resources, including running water, but it is home to some of the most welcoming people that I have ever met.

The nonprofit organization named Enfoque Ixcan (“focusing on the Ixcan”) was started by optometrist Scott Pike of Portland in 1996. In the remote jungle areas of Guatemala, doctors are few and far between so the government trains local residents on health care basics, which gives them the title “health promoters.”

These promoters become the village’s “go to” person for any health care needs. Dr. Pike met a health promoter named Pedro back in 1996 and was surprised to learn there was no access to eye care in the Ixcan. The nearest eye doctor is in the city of Coban, and most people can’t afford the six- to seven-hour drive there.

Keeping this in mind, Dr. Pike returned to the same village the following year and, with Pedro’s help, launched an eye care project. Instead of only providing eye care to underserved populations, Enfoque Ixcan is unique because it trains and equips health promoters so they can personally provide care to their villages year round. The more knowledge they have, the more they can help themselves; our job is to provide them with the resources.

Amigos Eye Care is the other nonprofit organization that made this trip possible. It is composed of both students and doctors through Pacific University College of Optometry in Forest Grove. Amigos was established in 1975 and serves thousands of people around the world, including areas of Central America, South America and even Asia.

During each school break, a few teams, composed of students and doctors, travel to remote countries providing eye care and recycled prescription glasses. When I was a student, I went on an Amigos trip to Nicaragua. After that, I was extremely motivated to continue these trips as a doctor.

We spent four long days of clinic in Guatemala, examining a little over 1,060 patients of various ages. With only six students, three doctors and four volunteers, we were able to work very efficiently, and 370 patients received new prescription glasses.

Many patients also received sunglasses and artificial tears to help with the many effects of UV exposure that are very common in Central America. Approximately 30 patients were referred for surgery; cataract surgery is the most common reason for referral.

Two days were spent in a town called Cantabal with mostly older patients. The other two days we traveled to remote villages to see school-aged children. The kids were so excited to see us that they ran alongside our bus as we drove into the village.

It was absolutely amazing to see how a pair of glasses can change an individual’s life. For some, it was the first time in a long time they could read their Bible; older women were able to work on crafts again. Mayan farmers were given sunglasses to help alleviate symptoms from working in the field all day long.

We even removed a foreign body from a 4-year-old girl’s eye that had become embedded onto her cornea weeks ago. I can’t say that I ever imagined doing something like that in the middle of the jungle.

We were overwhelmed with the amount of gratitude we received from each patient.

I was prepared for the heat, complete exhaustion and different foods. What I was surprised by was the significant influence that the dozens of patients had on my life. We travel and volunteer our services to help them, when in return they are the ones to teach me more about happiness and life that I would never learn in a classroom.

If you are interested in more pictures from my trip to Guatemala, you can visit Coastal Eye Care’s Facebook page – we have a page for each location!

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