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Local doctor gives the gift of sight

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With 7,000 pairs of eye glasses stashed in their luggage, about a dozen doctors and staff members set off

to Mexico to give the gift of sight to people who might never have seen

a clear day in their lives.

The group was part of the Volunteer Optometric Services to

Humanity (VOSH) _ Northwest, a non-profit organization dedicated to

providing eye care to people around the world.

The latest VOSH-Northwest mission took the team to a

lower/middle class community in Puerto Vallarta where it worked with the

government to conduct eye exams and distribute glasses to the people.

The eight doctors and six staff members managed to visit with

2,100 patients during their five-day outreach, which kept them at the

community center for at least 12 hours each day.

"You'd like to see everyone but it doesn't work out that way," said

Dr. Bryan Karrick, of Snoqualmie Valley Eyecare. "People had

pre-appointments, but on the third and fourth day, many of them came back with

their entire family."

It was the first time that Karrick and his wife Kimberley went on a

volunteer trip with VOSH-Northwest. Their interest in global

community service grew from Bryan's involvement with the Snoqualmie Valley

Rotary Club, which is working with a hospital in Guatemala. One of

the wishes the hospital had was for an optometrist to serve some of the

patients there. But, Bryan realized that it would take a whole team of volunteers

to fulfill the need, so he began looking for an outlet to use his skills.

That's when he found VOSH-Northwest, a 20-year-old

organization that has 100 members in Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and

Oregon. The chapter is part of VOSH International, which was founded in 1972

by Dr. Franklin Harms of Kansas.

Since its inception, the Northwest group has traveled to

Columbia, Trinidad and Honduras, and plans to venture to Thailand next year, said

the group's president Stuart Frank.

Frank has been on five missions and co-lead the latest Mexico trip.

He said that he became involved with VOSH because, like the Karricks,

he always had a passion for community service.

"This gives me a chance to provide something to people in need,"

he said. "And when I see a Guatemalan seamstress put on glasses and

thread a needle or a child who [can focus only on things three inches from his

face] who didn't realize that there were leaves on trees, it's heartwarming

to see that."

Like many of the missions Frank has been on before, the Puerto

Vallarta trip was no different. There were hoards of people wanting to take

advantage of the free service and most of them have never been to an

eye doctor before.

The volunteers worked in three areas: giving eye exams,

determining the person's prescription and finding a suitable pair of glasses.

It was especially challenging for the people who had to match the

patients with the eyeglasses. Since the items were all donated there were

no custom made matches, everything was based on luck. The glasses needed

to not only match the person's prescription, but they also needed to fit

their face.

"Contrary to what a lot of people might think, under correcting

doesn't hurt anything," Bryan said. "And

we'll under correct them so we don't cause injury."

But once the person was fitted with the right pair, it made the long

hours and sweltering Mexican heat seem worth it for the volunteers.

"Most people were very thankful and gracious. They would stand

up and give you a kiss because they couldn't read for years because of

their eyes," Kimberley said. "But then

they would put the glasses in their bag and walk out."

Bryan guesses that the people probably valued the glasses so

much that they didn't want to put them on, for fear that they might break or

lose them. For many, this was their first pair of spectacles they have ever owned.

"Glasses are truly a luxury item," he said, explaining that most of

the residents only make $3 to $5 a day in wages, with professionals topping

out at $10 a day. "Even psychologists can't make enough money to get

eye care."

During the exam, doctors found that many of the patients had

more serious eye problems including cataracts, glaucoma and diabetes _

conditions that they weren't equipped to treat.

"I saw more cataracts in one day than I see in a year," Bryan

commented.

However, money proved to be an obstacle for the people again,

and many of them conceded that they would lose their eyesight in the

next few years. The government is currently looking for a group of

doctors who would be willing to perform the nearly 600 cataract surgeries

needed in the community, but until then, the residents of Puerto Vallarta have

little hope in resolving the problem.

"Some of the little kids have horrible eye problems that weren't

addressed, so the experience was depressing and rewarding," Bryan said.

"Because it is good and bad, you have to look at the positive that

you're helping people vision-wise be able to read," Kimberley added. "You

hope that the surgeries happen, but to know you improved their quality of life

is rewarding."

The mission's success doesn't only depend on trips abroad. All year

round the volunteers collect donated glasses from churches, service clubs,

optical companies and the Lions Club. To donate usable glasses to

VOSH-Northwest, drop them off at Snoqualmie Valley Eyecare, 408 Main Ave. S.

in North Bend.

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