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VOSH: Chronicles of a Volunteer


On Saturday, January 31, 2015, twenty-two people, including ODs Rachael Canania, Michael Ciszek, Alicia Janessan, Mona Sood and James Vaught, MD Reginald Daves and RN Robyn Storm, departed for a VOSH mission in Guatemala. This was my fifth VOSH mission (Bolivia -2, Cameroon and Grenada) so certain patterns became clear.

VOSH teams bond quickly.

Our team gathered in the American Airlines lounge in Dallas, thanks to volunteer Randall Jackson who was a member. Those who had previously met on other missions greeted each other with hugs and kisses but newcomers were quickly made to feel at home. Within minutes, laughter from our group permeated the lounge, prompting one woman to come over and ask, “Who are you and why are you having such fun together?”

VOSH leaders are flexible and roll with the punches.

After arriving and spending the first night in Guatemala City, half the group departed by bus, provided by the host committee, to set up the clinic in Sololá, about 3 ½ hours from Guatemala City. Upon arrival, they discovered the clinic was locked and could not be accessed until the first day of clinic. Natalie Venezia, the intrepid team leader, revised the schedule and planned to arrive a bit early on the first day and set up at that time.

VOSH team members are also flexible and roll with the punches.

The bus to Sololá was supposed to return for the other half of the group. It did not. Somehow, telephone communication between that part of the team and those who had gone ahead did not work so the “left-behinders” contacted the hotel where we had spent the first night and arranged for a bus.

That evening, in the hotel in Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Natalie explained the new schedule and assigned responsibilities. Everyone was agreeable and supportive.

VOSH team members are flexible, continued:

The clinic was two rooms on the second floor of a hospital. Natalie quickly assigned locations. Eye drops would be administered by Sandy Adas to people waiting on the first floor or standing on the stairs, registration in a second floor hallway by volunteers Mel Muchnik and Robert Fenyo, auto refraction by Jimmy Gwillim and eye pressures taken by Janet Lunn in the hallway, visual acuity by Janet Muchnik and Randall Jackson in one half of a large room and the ODs in the other half. Selecting and fitting glasses by Opticians Jamar Holloway and David Kovach and volunteer Renee Reilly would take place in the second room, on the other side of the hallway. Unfortunately, it was not a lockable room so set-up was necessary each morning of the clinic as was carrying the supplies to the lockable room each evening. Again, the flexible team pitched in and got it done. Volunteers Deborah Wright-DeMaderios, Emilio Marrero and Danis Korzeniewski would float and help out where needed. Amazingly, within a short while, the patients began to move through the various steps and were seen by the ODs.

The atmosphere is one of respect and concern.

Members of the team wore nametags. Despite being aware that the line of patients often stretched out of the building, volunteers in all areas of the clinic still took the time to read the registration cards, address patients respectfully by their names and greet them. Volunteers who were particularly touched by certain patients in one area of the clinic would sometimes drop in at dispensing to see if “their” patient received glasses. Often, they would ask the ODs in the evening, “Did you treat such & such a patient? Were you able to help her?”

There are always moments of humor.

For example, while working with a young child who was reading the eye chart, after saying three of the letters, the voice of mama, standing nearby, became louder and louder as she said the letters along with the child.

There is always someone with whom you fall in love.

I brought along Matchbox Cars to give to the children. One little boy, probably 4 years old, said “thank you” then went to sit with his mother in the line to see the ODs. Somehow, he had grabbed my heart. I watched his little legs swinging from his chair and I went on to other patients. After about 15 minutes, he came back to where I was working and looked up at me. I thought he wanted to say something so bent to hear him. He held onto my face and kissed my mouth. Yes, love at first sight.

The statistics are always amazing.

Typically, third year students from Optometry schools supplement the number of ODs. The timing of the Guatemala mission conflicted with testing at many schools so no students were available; however, with the four available ODs, the team served 946 eye care patients and the MD and RN saw 87 medical patients, in just four days. Approximately 235 readers were dispensed as well as 210 recycled glasses. Nurse Storm reported that many of their patients had out-of-control diabetes and hypertension. Although medical care was available in the region, medications were costly so people either could not afford them or took them sparingly.

Incidentally, no one took breaks or complained about the workload.

No one is “just a volunteer”

Often, patients will read the nametags and refer to the volunteers as Doctor. When I corrected one patient by saying “I’m not a Doctor. I’m just a volunteer”, Dr. Ciszek came over to where I was working to tell me “No one is just a volunteer. The clinic would not be possible without the help of the volunteers.”

The ODs and volunteers are amazingly united in the goals of VOSH.

When asked to tell about a positive experience at the clinic, each of the ODs used almost identical language. “Many of these patients have never seen an eye doctor or worn corrective lenses. Some are walking around legally blind. As soon as we put lenses in front of their eyes, their faces light up. For some, it is life changing. For us, it’s heart-warming.”

The two opticians, Jamar Holloway and David Kovach, working in dispensing also described having observed “life changing moments.”

Dr. Ciszek added that people tell him, all the time, that his participation in the VOSH missions is a “great thing to do.” He said they don’t understand how much we get out of doing them.

He also described a situation in which a blind girl came to the clinic. She had lived with her blindness but was deeply embarrassed because she had no eyeballs. Being used to treating people with vision problems, the Doctor wondered what he could do for her. She wanted sunglasses so he searched for a “classy” pair, not one that looked like a blind person’s glasses. He found a pair and she put them on. She immediately began clapping and everyone in the room clapped. The glasses that someone else donated changed another person’s life. And, everyone agreed, that through the VOSH missions, we change people’s lives.

A new effort was undertaken as VOSH works towards sustainability.

Dr. Vaught brought with him all of the equipment with which to make glasses, along with hundreds of lenses. A team of three VOSH volunteers, James Brown, John Kramer and Deborah Perry, and two local volunteers worked all day long to make glasses. During the course of the clinic, they made 338 glasses. More than one third of the patients received brand new glasses made especially for them. At the end of the clinic, some of the equipment was left to the host team’s organization with the promise to return and teach others how to use it.

VOSH teams know how to enjoy r & r.

Following the mission, Natalie had planned a day of r & r. The majority of the team spent the day shopping in Antigua while some members, amazingly, spent their r & r climbing the side of a volcano.

Not every team experiences a unique ending.

At the end of the day, dust was flying through the air. Turns out, one of the volcanos had exploded and was spewing ash (not the one the team had climbed).

As a result, the airport closed and there was a second day of forced r & r. I called my dentist to cancel an appointment I was going to miss. “I can not keep the appointment because a volcano exploded and the airport is closed. Isn’t that the best excuse for missing a dental appointment you ever heard?”

Everyone would go on another mission at the drop of a hat.

The Hebrew philosopher, Maimonides, spoke of “Tikun Olam,” or “To heal the world”. He said it is the job of every person to work to make the world better. Thank you VOSH for giving us the opportunity to help heal the world.

From “not just a volunteer” Janet Muchnik

For numbers and results read VOSH 2015 Impact Report.