After touching down in Belize on Sunday, we were greeted by two local Lions Club members who escorted us to our clinic. They accompanied us through customs while we were screened with our suspicious, black leather trial lens kits, BIO kits, and diagnostic kits. Oh, and let’s not forget the many questionable crates of glasses. Leaving the airport around 1:30pm, we loaded our luggage on a school bus and we were on our way to the clinic. The windows were down, as we took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the country. Forest fires took the better of the scenery, as the barks of trees were charred and underbrush was scarce. The culture shock made me think we looked like a scene from Out of Africa or The Air Up There: the yellow school bus, the dust and smoke, the unwelcomed heat and punishing humidity. Since Memphis was a mere 55°F when we left, I forgot the feeling of 96°F and 90% humidity.
We arrived at the clinic, met some other Lions, and ate some local food. The clinic is a large, open concrete building that the Lions use for their functions as well as renting out for other events, such as weddings. After lunch, we began organizing the clinic by stations. There are eleven students and one staff doctor, so the clinic preparation didn’t take much time. Around 3pm, we met our host families for the first time. These host families are Lions, who adopted us for the week, mostly two students per home.
I really enjoyed staying with my host family – living “a day in the life” with my classmate, host mom, and host brother … as well as host dogs, host cockroaches … I’ll stop there. We all went out to dinner that evening to have some amazing food, drinks, and conversation. I had been in Belize for only six hours, and because of the people we met, I already loved it. We returned home and turned on the air conditioning to our room – we were some of the lucky few to have air conditioning at night.
Monday morning came, and my classmate and I were greeted with breakfast on the veranda – we joked that we were on our honeymoon, with the native flowers, birds chirping, and quiescent sunrise. Our host mom cooked us a large breakfast each morning on that porch, usually consisting of fruits, fry jacks, and refried beans. In fact, her house was an operating well-known and well-visited Bed & Breakfast. In the small city of Belmopan, Belize, she knew every car that passed by us on the porch and exchanged a friendly smile and wave. After breakfast, we’d gather our belongings, and she would drive us to the clinic. Every morning around 8:15am, we would walk past a crowd of patients waiting for the clinic to open 15 minutes later. And every morning, in its entirety, repeated the same way.
At the clinic, patients were guided through different stations. In order, patients went from medical history, near and far visual acuities, retinoscopy, direct ophthalmoscopy. If we dilated the patient due to hypertension, diabetes, or other specific health concerns, the patient would then proceed to BIO after retinoscopy. The last stop is the all-awaited optical, where patients found suitable prescription glasses, artificial tears, and/or sunglasses. Because of the lingering smoke in the air, we unfortunately ran out of artificial tears in a couple of days.
We saw a full spectrum of adverse eye conditions – some of which I only thought I’d ever see in textbooks. We examined patients with hyphema, hypopyon, implants, botched cataract surgeries, IOLs in the anterior chamber, and more. I was witness to countless pterygiums and pingueculas … you will never catch me without sunglasses from now on. Because of the large amount of cataracts, I sighed in relief when I could see a clear reflex in healthy patients during retinoscopy.
Because we needed to be mobile, we conducted retinoscopy using skiascopy bars and trial frames. For various reasons – whether a language barrier, faint reflex, bad cataracts, substantial and unexpected astigmatism – I occasionally walked a patient to the distance VA chart to trial frame. And then comes the moment that ceaselessly took my breath away. The patient looked at the VA chart, and I placed the proposed prescription lenses in front of their eyes. In that moment, all language barriers broke and the only communication shared was the patient’s smile. That’s enough to make you swallow away the mist in your eyes and send chills down your spine. That feeling is what makes all the hours practicing and studying in optometry school – all the exams, quizzes, stress, doubt, successes, failures – completely worth it.
The 12 of us served approximately 800 patients in four days, and these patients came from all over the country by foot, bus, car, and bike. Clinic was open from 8:30am and closed around 5pm, Monday through Thursday. But the day didn’t stop at 5pm. In the evenings, we would go out, swim at pool parties, and even had a bingo night with the Lions. On our last night in Belmopan, the Lions hosted a banquet for us, and it was the last night we shared with our host families.
We worked hard in Belmopan, and then we played hard Caye Caulker, our resort for the weekend – a three-mile long island off the coast of Belize. On Sunday, we boarded the plane back to the States.
It was the people we met in clinic, the host families, the eye diseases, the endless and dreadful reappearance of refried beans, the parties, the experiences in clinic in Belmopan in Caye Caulker, and the many laughs we shared in those three places that made this SVOSH trip truly unforgettable.