The conditions at medical clinics in the highlands of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador are a far cry from the state-of-the-art facilities at Middlesex Eye Physicians in Middletown, which has the latest technology for eye care.
Several local medical professionals, including two members from Middlesex Eye Physicians staff, traveled to the South American country in January to volunteer for the mobile medical clinic. They were undaunted by the many obstacles this mission presented, including the oxygen-depriving high altitudes, a language barrier, difficult traveling conditions to five remote villages, and a lack of well-equipped medical facilities. The rewards of providing excellent eye care and improving the eye health and quality of life for the Quechua – an indigenous, marginalized people, far outweighed the challenges.
“We see things (there) that are very treatable but lead to blindness because they don’t get timely care,” said Dr. Scot Yap, an Optometrist, who participated in the annual medical mission trip to Ecuador for the third consecutive year. The trip was sponsored by Connecticut-based Partners for Andean Community Health and its related FIBUSPAM Inc., a 5013c non-profit organization founded by Paul Martel in 2012. The organization “provides humanitarian aid and medical support to the poorest of the poor in the Andean and Amazonian regions of Ecuador,” according to its website. Statistics on the website indicate 63% of the indigenous population in Chimborazo Province live in extreme poverty, direct access to health care is limited, and eye and dental care are even more scarce.
Most villagers travel within their villages by foot or donkey, but a motor vehicle is most definitely necessary to traverse the roads to major cities for medical care, which most of the impoverished do not have access to.
They are grateful to have professional eye care specialists come to them in their own villages each year. And they are appreciative of the services provided by PACH and FIBUSPAM, which exceed that of their own government medical care.
“When our bus arrives, the village is filled with excitement because we may be the only medical professionals they see in years” said Dr. Yap, who was volunteering alongside Dr. Elwin Schwartz, a retired partner with Middlesex Eye Physicians. Together they treated at least 620 patients, traveling to five different clinics in five days.
Emily DeLarm, a licensed optician at Middlesex Eye Physicians, said it was particularly heart-warming to witness the reactions people had when their eyesight was improved by a pair of eyeglasses. “Their faces lit up,” she said, adding that they distributed 500 eyeglasses and scheduled 147 people to have cataract surgery at a future date.
For many of the Quechua, improved vision means they can continue to work. So many of them work with their hands and do intricate bead work. When their near vision is compromised it reduces or eliminates their ability to earn a living, said DeLarm.
Dr. Raji Mulukutla, MD, an Ophthalmologist at Middlesex Eye Physicians, traveled on a FIBUSPAM mission trip to Ecuador in 2016. The focus of this volunteer effort was to perform much needed ocular surgery for the clinic’s patients. The most rewarding case for Dr. Raji was a successful operation that she and Dr. Schwartz completed on Miriam, a 6-year old girl affected by severe cataracts.
Without vision many of these children will not be able to advance socially or academically “If you deter their ability to learn opportunities are stolen from them and they are further marginalized,” Dr. Yap said.
“It’s really sobering to put this into perspective and just see what we have here (in the U.S.A). We can always give back, whether it’s here or in another country. There are always people in need no matter where you go,” DeLarm said.
Dr. Yap, Emily DeLarm and Dr. Schwartz were joined on this most recent trip by Ray Dennis, who is the former director of the Middlesex Community College Optician program. Dennis recently retired and fills his time with different charity work. Opticians Debbie White and Andrea Salcedo, and Wesleyan pre-med student Sarah Morgan, as well as the local FIBUSPAM clinical staff joined them during their mission.