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VOSH eyecare mission - Cusco, Peru

Many countries, Canada included, have a strong social safety net in place should things go awry including some form of unemployment insurance, social assistance and of course, universal health care. The latter social program means that a fortunate amount of people around the world will never have to choose between food and health care, a choice that many others are forced to make on a daily basis.

With the global economy in a seemingly never-ending downward spiral, personal debt at an all time high and the general outlook fairly gloomy, one can be excused for focusing on their personal survival these days. Regardless of education, job or title, most are feeling the pinch and are doing whatever is necessary to survive the global crisis unscathed.

But if you think that we have it bad, imagine what it's like for people in developing countries that have poor social programs to fall back on. Even worse, imagine what it's like for those in rural regions who are often disconnected from the rest of the country, have little to no access to government programs and typically never benefit from increased economic activity and foreign investment.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I volunteered to participate in a humanitarian mission abroad in Cusco, Peru this past summer. The opportunity to travel and to help first hand and not through anonymous donations was too good of an opportunity to waste and it was something that I had always wanted to do.

The objective of the four day mission lead by Kevin Chavez - president of the Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH), University of Waterloo chapter - was to perform visual acuity tests, fit patients with donated prescription eyewear when necessary, provide ocular health checks and dispense medical eye drops when appropriate to as many people as possible. Anyone could be a patient so long as they had one of the vouchers distributed by the municipality. Since these vouchers were given to prospective patients well in advance without any specific VOSH guidelines, VOSH volunteers had to plan for patients of all ages and had to assume that many would be suffering from a variety of diseases and ailments.

Evidently, it wasn't only me who jumped at the opportunity to help abroad. Twenty three current and future eye care professionals (i.e. optometrists, optometry students and opticians) and other volunteers from all over Canada and the United States made the trip to Cusco at their own expense. From a supplies perspective, thousands of used prescription glasses were donated, advanced medical devices were loaned by businesses and complementary medical eye drops were supplied by corporate sponsors.

After a lengthy commute, a day or so to get acclimatized to the altitude and a day to set up the clinic and organize the eyewear at City Hall, the mission was underway. Every day started the same way: hundreds of patients, with and without vouchers, queued outside the building, many arriving as early as three in the morning. The line up never shrank and as the day went on, it actually grew as people without vouchers heard about the mission and queued in hopes of getting medical attention. The additional people caused some level of confusion in both the line up and the registration area and inevitably, frustrations grew for all. This issue however only highlighted the need for help in the region. After all, no one could really blame people in need for trying to see a doctor.

Once registered, patients received a visual acuity test in order to determine their level of vision and depending on their score, were instructed to wait by a specific workstation. VOSH volunteers were divvied up and manned different workstations, each designed to assess and address specific diseases and ailments. Some patients had to visit various workstations due to the number of problems they had, and in the end, most visited the prescription eyewear station where they received a pair of glasses. The donated glasses were organized by prescription and patients were issued and fitted with a pair that was either exactly their prescription or very close to it.

There were many memorable patients throughout the four day mission. One man could barely hear or speak and was visually impaired due to serious cataracts in both eyes. Assisting him was incredibly difficult, as you can imagine, but with the help of local volunteers, we were able to locate a relative that could accompany him to the local hospital so that he could be treated by specialists. His treatment was funded by the generous donations the VOSH mission received beforehand.

Another example was an older woman who could barely see. As a street vendor however, all she wanted was the ability to distinguish between local currency in order to not be taken advantage of. VOSH volunteers put their creativity hats on and built a microscope out of cardboard, pens and a couple of lenses.

We saw countless kids who required a pair of glasses to help them see clearly for the first time. All in all, it was an incredible experience, one that I won't soon forget.

The mission was a success. VOSH volunteers attended to more than 2,000 patients in four days. One of my main duties while there was to photograph the mission in order to show others what transpired in Peru this past August. Below is a series of pictures from the mission.