For Drs. Rebecca and Dean Barcelow, their recent trip to Haiti was no eye-opener.
It was the third trip to La Mardelle, Haiti for the sibling doctors who provided free services to the impoverished region in March. Both Drs. Barcelow work with their father, Dr. Jerry Barcelow, at the Royalton-based Eye Care for You.
Licensed optician Graidi Ainsworth and recent intern Alex Horne also accompanied the Barcelows on their journey. With glasses filling most of the space in the travelers’ luggage, there was precious little room for extra clothes. With them, they brought examination lenses and many hand-held devices, including slit lamps and other optometry equipment.
Seeing to It
Established in 2013, the eight-room clinic in La Mardelle provides free and affordable healthcare services to surrounding communities. Sponsored by the charitable organization Fondation Enfant Jesus, the clinic offers various regular medical services in addition to optometry, including vaccines, prenatal and maternity services, physiotherapy, and pediatrics, as well as educational services, such as nutritional programs for children and pregnant women.
Currently, Haiti has essentially no optometrists and only a small number of ophthalmologists, most of whom practice in the immediate Port-au-Prince area.
Since access to healthcare is extremely difficult for residents of remote regions such as La Mardelle, some patients walk over an hour to the clinic to receive medical attention. Unless the Barcelows or another optometry group is at the clinic, there is no eye care to be found in that area.
The Barcelows estimate that they performed 30-50 full exams each day, starting at 9 in the morning and ending at 5 or later, depending on how many patients there are left in line.
“We see patients until they’re done,” Becky said.
Two-thirds of the patients seen required some type of intervention for treating glaucoma, diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, dry eye, and foreign bodies, among other things.
With a lack of federal privacy laws in Haiti, the eye care rooms, at times, had a crowd of people in them watching the appointments.
“Back home, you have to meet patient insurance requirements and all the state requirements,” explained Dean, “but the one thing you’re not really doing is that patient-care thing you imagined when you first decided to become a doctor…but when you’re in Haiti, the only person you have to care about is the person sitting in front of you. You can literally choose to do what’s best for them and you don’t have to worry about paperwork or insurance plans.”
The residents of La Mardelle they treated all spoke Creole. With only two translators for the three eye care rooms, the four eye experts encountered a cumbersome language barrier while communicating with their patients.
“Sometimes we would be working and there were four, five other people waiting to be seen in the room and the line right outside the door,” Dean says. “I would explain something for a few minutes and then it seemed like the translator would turn and summarize what I just said in a few words. Next there would be excited conversation from the other people in the room, then nothing. I would ask the translator what that was about and I would get a, ‘oh, nothing!’ when clearly that was something. But it always worked out.”
Seeing a Difference
During their first trip to Haiti in 2014, the Barcelows transported 400 pairs of glasses for the patients, a number that was depleted quickly. This time, Jerry Barcelow purchased 1275 pairs of glasses, custom-making 17 pairs, that, combined with the glasses from donations, ensured that they would not run out.
The eye specialists saw many cataracts and glaucoma patients while there, as well as several patients from previous years’ trips who returned for check ups.
“With some of the chronic care patients…we actively saving their eyesight,” Dean noted.
In the end, the seven-day trip was extended to 10. The extra time spent in Haiti was used to screen hundreds of students at a local school for vision problems.
One of the many memorable experiences encountered by the Barcelows was pulling a beetle out of a four-year-old boy’s upper eyelid.
Another young boy they treated, about five, had severe eye inflammation and was actively going blind. He walked 40 minutes with his mother to the clinic to receive the help and eye drop steroids needed to save his vision.
“It’s nice to give people glasses,” Becky says, “But when you’re able to really intervene in those situations, that’s the thing I like best.”
While describing their trip, both doctors thanked the community for its support.
While having doctors on a regular basis at the clinic would be ideal, Dean explained that having an established cataract surgeon at the clinic is much needed. Still, Dean stressed that donating glasses or a check is helpful to their efforts, and donating unopened glaucoma medicine would be most beneficial.
Dean said, “You can look back at the end of the day and see you really made a difference.”