Smiling Eyes By: Joan Pearlstein Dunn, Surgicorps Vietnam 2016 Trip

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It’s been three months since our team has returned from Vietnam.  As with all of Surgicorps’ trips, it was one filled with joy, and with sorrow. On screening day, the physicians walk into a room bursting with children that have cleft lips and palates, missing ears, and faces distorted from disease. There is never a shortage of dreadful and disfiguring burns; most are due to lack of proper kitchens and dangerous surroundings in rural homes. Performing life-changing surgery on people so desperately in need brings joy to everyone.  Occasionally a patient must be turned away because of high risk, or because the hospital lacks the proper facilities necessary to proceed.  When the doctors have to turn someone away, for any reason, there is no greater sorrow.

Surgicorps introduced a new vision program on this trip, and I was privileged to be a part of it.  A team of six non-medical volunteers, spent three days at a Vision Clinic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  Hundreds of people made their way to us, many by foot, for the chance to be fitted for a simple pair of eyeglasses.  Through the generous support of Dr. Larry Butler and the Global Brigade University of Pittsburgh students, 2,000 pairs of distance glasses were donated and then tediously bagged, according to strengths.  This was in addition to 600 pairs of readers that we carried in huge duffle bags.

With Godspeed (and the help of interpreters) the six of us took a crash-course in basic optometry and learned how to refract eyes, chart the findings, and fit people with both distance and reader glasses.  Not uncommon in many developing countries, most of the patients that we screened did not speak a word of English. Local students who studied at the clinic helped us to screen and direct the sea of people that waited, some for hours, in the hopes that they would see clearly again.

Many of these people had never been to an eye doctor before, or even had their vision tested.  Our eyes watched in amazement, as some of them were able to read text for the first time in years, or look across a room that would suddenly come into focus.  We cried with them over the sheer joy of having their eyesight improved, something that is so basic in the United States.  They hugged and thanked us, as if we had performed a miracle.

With the simple gift of distance glasses, people were jubilant as they walked about the room. We learned that one woman hadn’t been able to read her beloved newspaper in over a decade.  Some of the elderly were suffering from cataracts, so without surgery they couldn’t be helped in this modest setting.  They graciously left with a smile and a thank you, and for them we had a table of sunglasses.  No one went home empty handed, least of all, us.  We flew home with smiling eyes, knowing that 775 people had renewed confidence.  They were able to read again, learn again, find employment again, look at photos of their grandchildren again, or just recognize and wave to a friend across the street.

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