Out there developing a real vision for helping others

Elmira optometrist Carole Wilkinson’s trip to Guatemala as a volunteer proved to be an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.

Many small pieces of Elmira have made their way to Guatemala.

Elmira optometrist Carole Wilkinson was part of a team of optometrists and volunteers who recently travelled to the Central American country to provide eye care to people in rural areas.

Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) organizes the medical trips and the glasses are gathered by local Lions clubs, including the Woolwich Lions Club to which Wilkinson belongs.

They spent eight days conducting eye clinics. All donations go toward eye care, and the optometrists and volunteers completely pay their own way.

“You reach a point in your career where you want to give back. It was time for me to start giving back. You go down there and you realize how well off we are here. Some of them have really basic shelters, some are barefoot, they don’t wear shoes, and they don’t have eye care. Without sight, it limits what they can do to earn an income for their families,” Wilkinson said.

This was her first time making the trip to Guatemala. Her husband, Jim, has gone for the past three years.

The team she was part of delivered eye care to 900 patients, referred 30 cases to volunteer eye surgeons, and delivered more than 1,350 pairs of eyeglasses.

“By the time we’d get to the villages they would be all lined up already, ready and waiting. And some would wait, half the day, three quarters of the day to be seen,” she said.

Un-ironically, she says “It was an eye-opener that’s for sure.”

She says some of the common issues they saw were cataracts and congenital eye disease. And because they cook over open fires and are exposed to a lot of dirt and sand due to the roads, they often had red, itchy eyes. They’re also exposed to a lot of sunlight because they work outdoors, so they need to wear sunglasses. They provided every patient with a pair of sunglasses.

Carole Wilkinson provided free eye care to hundreds of patients in Guatemala, working with the help of an interpreter, seen here, to refine eyeglass prescriptions. [Submitted]

“Even if you’re in the coffee fields, you have to be able to see the colour of the coffee beans. And that’s often one of the symptoms is they can’t sort the coffee beans in the coffee fields if their vision is too poor,” she said.

They each brought a 50-pound hockey bag full of eyeglasses and supplies. They were joined by an eye surgeon who brought surgical supplies and conducted eye surgery on patients. For patients who had a cataract removed, this service was like a miracle – restoring their sight.

“We go in remote communities where it’s not available, but even if it was available they couldn’t afford it. They often say that they’ve been forgotten by the government and when we come in they say we’re like angels of hope because they feel forgotten, they really do,” she said.

They try to pick the closest prescription out of the glasses they bring with them. Some prescriptions they have to have made up so that’s where they’ll use donations to create those eyeglasses.

She plans to return next year and says her goal this year is to learn more Spanish so she can communicate better with the patients, instead of through an interpreter.

She accepts eyeglasses year-round at her office in Elmira for the Lions Club’s eyeglass recycling program. Even if it’s just lenses, sometimes they can re-cut the lenses into a different frame. They’ll even take frames with no lenses.

“All the materials are used and they go directly to the Guatemalans.”