Long lines rise above a red background like webs of red rivers traversing a continent on a satellite shot. I pivot my hand to the left and attempt to see past the blinding glare until I finally reach…ah, yes, the edge of the macula. As the light illuminates the area, I do not find the expected healthy macula of a twelve-year-old boy. Instead I see what appears to be a white and black soccer ball-like appearance covering the entire area. I try to maintain my composure and quickly disengage my eye from the ophthalmoscope resting on the patient’s cheek. The doctor standing behind me explains that this child has experienced trauma to the macula and will never regain vision in that eye. Eagerly, another student grabs my instrument in order to take a glimpse at the patient’s toxoplasmosis of the macula. Sympathy and excitement wash over me, as I experience deep concern, mixed with a little curiosity, at what I have just witnessed. I take a moment’s rest and regroup. Our makeshift clinic runs like an efficient conveyer belt steadily moving a never-ending line of patients from visual acuity to refraction to ocular health, ending with dispensing of glasses. In just in a few days, our group has transformed from a diverse assortment of students unsure of their clinical abilities into a confident and efficient team. As the sun beats down on the stone church, I stare at the rows of patients fanning themselves as they patiently wait for their turn. Hearing my name called suddenly yanks me out of my reverie. Across the room, one of my classmates motions me over to the refraction station….I take a deep breath, ready to tackle the next 100 patients.
Truthfully, I joined the FCO 2013 Belize mission trip not knowing what to expect. Would I sink or swim in the deep water? I needed not have worried, however. Instead of watching us first-years gasp for breath, the second-year students threw us life preservers and supported us throughout the whole experience. But they also pushed us to take risks. They encouraged us to refract challenging presentations and attempt new techniques, such as taking eye pressures and performing ophthalmoscope on patients with microscopic pupils. At one point I became disheartened because after numerous attempts, I just could not get the optic disc in view. My second-year mentor persuaded me not to give up and to try different techniques until I finally succeeded! By the end of the week, I was not only swimming, but confidently stroking along.
This trip offered so much more than improved clinical skills, however. Most importantly, we were able to experience first-hand just how rewarding optometry can be and what a pivotal role we play in improving the quality of people’s lives. Although I enjoyed working at all the stations, my favorite station had to be the final station of dispensing glasses. It was here that I was able to see the examination process come to fruition. As the patients donned their new glasses, huge smiles spread on their faces, reflecting their delight in being able to see clearly. I will never forget one girl who suffered from a degenerative bone disease that kept her permanently confined to a wheelchair. She could have chosen to be angry and bitter, but instead she was one of the friendliest and happiest patients I treated during the week. The doctors decided to bless her with a free pair of prescription glasses. Such simple acts of kindness give added purpose to all these long hours of lecture and studying.
Even with the eight-hour work days, we managed to squeeze in a little fun and experience the Belizean culture. Our “jungle resort” was equipped with small comfortable cabanas situated right along the beach. We spent most of our first day lying on the soft sand, playing in the water and just regrouping after a long week of midterms. Each morning we would walk to the common palapa where we were greeted by an array of fresh fruit, eggs and pancakes. In the evenings, the resort’s cook invited us to her house and cooked us wonderful authentic Belizean dishes consisting of fry jacks, beans, rice and fresh fish or chicken. At night we would gather around and share our best and worst experiences. Oftentimes the high point of my day was the bus ride back from clinic when we were all sitting in one van, exhausted, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. It was during this special hour that we truly came together not just as colleagues, but as friends. On our last night, the doctors surprised us with a traditional garifuna dance performance and a fresh-baked farewell Belizean chocolate cake….surely a little slice of (food) heaven! Then it came time to say goodbye. Although I was sad to leave this amazing island, I was returning with newfound confidence, a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, and new life-long friends.