Recently, Dr. Rachel Watson participated in a medical mission trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, through the organization Hope for Haiti’s Children. This organization sponsors 10 different schools around the city. Each of the schools gets to come to the annual clinic. In just four days, a team of 46 volunteers and 40 Haitian staff were able to treat over 800 kids and 200 adults.
At the clinic, the children have a school picture taken. They are measured for height and weight. The kids see a nurse and a doctor, if needed. And they get their vision tested to see if they need glasses or have glaucoma. As this is an annual clinic, the children may only see a doctor “once a year, if they are lucky,” says Dr. Watson.
One of the biggest reasons proper eye care is necessary for the people of Haiti is that about 20% of the population there has glaucoma. That’s a very high concentration in such a small area. During the trip, even children as young as six were diagnosed with glaucoma. With glaucoma, catching the disease as early as possible is critical. The doctors were able to distribute a year’s worth of glaucoma medication to patients.
Eye exams also revealed a great need for prescription glasses. Many people were able to see clearly for the first time due to the doctor’s efforts. “These people couldn’t see more than a couple of inches in front of their face. We gave them prescription glasses and suddenly they could see across the room… for the first time in their lives,” commented Dr. Watson
The available prescription glasses were donated from previous users to the Lion’s Club who provided them to the project. Each donated pair is cleaned, the prescription measured, and then they are distributed to the people of Haiti. Kids and adults not needing prescription glasses were given sunglasses to help protect their eyes from the Caribbean sun.
The volunteers, doctors, and patients faced 85 to 90-degree days with little access to air conditioning. There were also hints of civil unrest during the time of the trip. Security guards had to be supplemented by armed guards. One day, the clinic was evacuated in a hurry because of riots occurring and tear gas being used just outside their hotel. Some children had to miss their only chance to see the doctor due to the political unrest.
Many more children went through other trials to get to their appointments. “It was heartbreaking. Some of the kids that came to our clinic would walk three hours down the mountain and sleep on the concrete floor of a school. Then they get on the bus the next day for maybe an hour and come see us,” Dr. Watson explains.
Despite the circumstances, the children of Haiti are some of the most well behaved. Dr. Watson adds, “it’s crazy to think what these kids went through to get to the clinic. You would never guess from their attitudes and clean and pressed school uniforms the conditions they came from.” But the volunteers with the mission didn’t just treat the kids with medicine and glasses.
“We were handing out candy,” Dr. Watson says. “this was a big luxury for them. A child could have two pieces, but they still wanted to give one of them to us. It melted your heart.” Several days, the group tossed candy to the people through school bus windows on the way to and from the clinic. One woman was even throwing pairs of shoes. Haiti is a poor country where clean water, food, and basic necessities are scarce. Each child at the clinic was given a gift bag containing a toothbrush, washcloth, socks, and underwear. Meals were also served for the children.
Dr. Watson describes her motivations. “Some people from my church—an MD and a couple of nurses—had worked with this organization before and they kept telling me they needed an eye doctor. I had been on another mission trip to Venezuela in optometry school, so I was interested in doing that again.”
But it’s not like a luxury vacation—although you pay a luxury price for going. Dr. Watson had to cover all her own expenses and even get shots before entering the country. It was about $2500 to go. However, the experience was certainly worth the expense and effort. “Haiti has a very different culture. We were so welcomed, and it was nice to meet everyone. Even the translators we used from the island were coveted for their roles in getting to help us.”
If you want to help the people of Haiti, please bring in your gently used eyeglasses as a donation. Dr. Watson will get them where they need to go. You can also sponsor a Haitian child through https://www.hopeforhaitischildren.org/ Each sponsorship helps with school tuition, supplies, uniforms, and transportation to and from school. Only about 50% of Haiti’s children go to school because the education system is not free. Donate to this amazing organization today and be assured that you are making a difference.