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A mission with a vision

Bringing the gift of good eyesight to one of the poorest areas of Nicaragua



What would your reaction be if you could suddenly see clearly for the first time in your life?

For many of us without the blessing of 20/20 vision, this occurred when we were young with our first pair of glasses. Today in most of Canada getting our vision checked and having glasses prescribed is about as easy as going to the grocery store.

But for the people of impoverished nations, far from any medical assistance let alone an optometry clinic, sudden visual clarity can be a life-changing event.

"Some people just don't know what to say," says Whistler optometrist Cindy Wagner, who recently returned from Nicaragua and her fifth humanitarian mission.

"This one woman in her 70s, just started laughing hysterically when she put glasses on for the first time in her life. For 30 years she had never been able to see the faces of her kids or her grandkids. She was just so excited to go home and see what everyone looked like."

In early March, Wagner was part of a 10-day medical mission to Riscos de Oro, a village in one of the poorest regions in Nicaragua. She travelled with two other B.C. optometrists as part of a greater medical mission spearheaded by the Vancouver-based Ascenta Foundation.

A community school in Risco de Oro was temporarily converted into a full-scale medical clinic including stations for medical, dental and optometry services as well as a fully stocked pharmacy. The setup took several weeks with all the supplies having to be flown into the nearby town of Rosita from the nation's capital, Managua. Much of the equipment and supplies were donated by pharmaceutical companies, and hundreds of pairs of unused spectacles were collected at optometry clinics around Canada. These glasses, no longer of use to their former owners, are now giving the poor families of Nicaragua a chance to see clearly.

After the preparations at the makeshift clinic and enlisting the help of local doctors, dentists and nurses, over 2,000 patients were treated over four days. Many of these patients were farmers and their families, some of whom travelled a full day on horseback in order to attend the clinic. Once at the school, patients would move between classrooms where different specialists would see them for dental, eye and general health examinations.

Many of the travelling patients received word through a community VHF radio, the only communication available to surrounding towns that the clinic was open.

Upon arrival at the school in Risco de Oro, they would line up for hours before being seen by the clinic staff. As well as receiving treatment, all patients received instruction on maintaining proper hygiene — such as brushing teeth and hand washing — and everyone received a take home package containing essential hygiene products such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, soaps and bandages.

"Sustainability is important, you have to do both (treatment and prevention), not just one and not the other," says Wagner.

"We need these people to do their own eye exams and their own healthcare, but in these impoverished areas there is no motivation from the government to do that, so it's very difficult to get sustainability in those areas. We can at least go in and help them, at least do something to help tie them over until at some point the government, or someone, can go in and make it sustainable and give those people another lease at life."

Healthy vision also plays its part in that sustainability with youth being capable of receiving proper education and adults being considerably more likely to find employment to feed their families.

"It essentially gives them their lives back," says Wagner.

"They're able to cook food, take care of their children and actually function in a job. If you don't have vision you can't be employed, you can't make an income. It gives these people the ability to function in a world where they otherwise they may not have been able to."

Eye care is often taken for granted in developed countries with people sometimes going years without a check-up, ignoring their less than ideal vision and potential for eye disorders. But around the world there are millions of people without that essential service available to them, something Wagner says can sometimes even lead to civil unrest.

"Whenever I go on these trips, people do anything they can to come in and get an eye exam and get glasses. In North America, we're pulling teeth to get people to come in and have their eyes checked. I've been on trips where people have started rioting, where they've had to bring in the police and the military. That happened in Vietnam to us, there was a riot of almost 5,000 people who wanted to come get their eyes checked. We could only see a certain number of people per day and after that we had cut people off. That's how desperate people are to be able to see again."

Unused or outdated spectacle frames can be brought into the Whistler Eye Clinic for donation to future humanitarian missions. For more information on the Ascenta Foundation, or to donate, go to