| Apr 20, 2010
Like most people, the aging residents of the Haitian mountain villages where we offer medical care, are losing their eyesight from conditions ranging from age to dust to excessive exposure to the sun.
We can’t do much for the ones with glaucoma. But for those that just need reading glasses for some visual correction, Dr. Mary Owen brings a twinkle to their eyes.
With a personal project she modeled after another missionary’s program, the Seattle MD, first brought eyeglasses to Indonesia after the 2004 Boxer Day tsunami devastated Banda Ache province. It was also the first time Fred and I had met Mary, a feisty character, who makes it her personal goal to bring happiness, along with her medical care, to young and old in the countries where she volunteers.
She showed up in Haiti with about 250 pair of reading glasses she had obtained from a friend who has an optician store.
In Indonesia, where Mary was based in the small community of Lamno, she mostly had prescription glasses with no way to test the people’s eyes for proper fit. Instead, she’d lay glasses all over a table and just let people try them on until they found some that worked.
“We just let them try them on pair after pair until we got a huge grin. Then we knew it was the one,” Mary recalled.
One of my favorite memories of our Banda Ache mission together is watching a little, old man trying on glasses until he found some that were absolutely perfect for his vision problems. No matter that they were an old-fashioned pair of wing-tipped women’s frames. HE COULD SEE!!! And he went off smiling broadly and able to see where he was going for the first time in years. It was a special moment to watch.
Mary said she started the eyeglass program (which has been imitated by many other volunteers) after a friend of hers recommended them before she left for Indonesia. Mary didn’t have much time before departure, but put out the word to a lot of friends and eyeglass stores and collected over 100 pair for her first venture in the land of opticians.
Later on, a friend of Mary’s who has an optical store offered to save all old glasses and any that were to be thrown away to make room for new shipments. One day a huge box full of over 1,000 pair of reading glasses showed up on Mary’s doorstep in Seattle.
She tried her eyeglass missionary work again on her next trip to Nicaragua with Medical Teams International and it was another huge success. “They loved it” she said.
“I never did it in Uganda, and I really regret it,” Mary recalled. After that, I just decided to bring eyeglasses on every trip I took.” (She’s been on six missions with Medical Teams International).
This time she brought about 250 pair, but forgot an eye chart. When we went to the mountain village of Mithon, she gave all the medical practitioners numbered tongue depressors to give to patients with vision problems. Then at 2 p.m. she did a medical about-face and turned from doctor to optician. Her interpreter, Conception, held up a paper “A Rough Guide to Haitian Medicine” with various size English words on it. She asked the villagers to tell her which lines they could see (but not necessarily read). When one could read the words in English, all the onlookers laughed and said “It’s a miracle!”
It takes patience and a sweet nature to wait for the villagers to pick the pair they think works best. Most are afraid to let the first pair go for fear it won’t be replaced. But Mary and Conception gently explain that they will get glasses, only it needs to be the best pair for them.
“Most of the women just want to be able to thread their needles,” said Mary. I understand that. I can’t do that anymore either.
“When they can see, it’s just such a simple joy. It makes us really appreciate the things we take for granted,” Mary added. “These people have such a hard life, anything we can do to bring some joy into their lives is wonderful.”
She compared the situation in Haiti to those in Indonesia. During the tsunami or the earthquake, people were just running for their lives. They didn’t have time to stop and grab things like eyeglasses or paperwork.
Mary said her one regret is that she can’t do anything with the eyeglasses to help old people with glaucoma or cataracts. But for those that she can help, Mary’s personal eyeglass mission is a real blessing.