Mission for vision

NANAIMO - Optometrist Johnathan Lam helps people in Nicaragua gain the gift of sight with donated glasses.

Going to Nicaragua on a medical aid mission was like stepping back in time for Nanaimo optometrist Johnathan Lam.

People rode horses to get to town. There was no electricity and the buildings were constructed with boards reminiscent of past times.

“We had kids that had never seen a felt pen before and we had to show them how it works,” said Lam.

The sight of poverty wasn’t new for him. Lam has headed into secluded villages six times, four times to Mexico and twice to Nicaragua, to volunteer his services to help people see.

Sight is crucial to the economic survival of many people he treats. Many patients need reading glasses for work, such as making crafts or sewing, and others who need glasses for distance or they can’t travel to their work destinations. There was one gentleman Lam fitted with bifocal glasses who had about a plus-10 prescription.

“That is a massive prescription,” said Lam, adding the man’s lack of sight impeded his daily life. “He had trouble even walking around. He would walk with family. His production was limited because he wouldn’t be able to go out on his own.”

Unemployment in the region he visited is about 75 per cent, said Lam. The minimum wage is about $3 a day and a foreman could get about $5 a day. But what struck Lam the most wasn’t the living conditions or poverty but the incredible resilience of the people he met.

The optometrist, who works at Vision Arts Eyecare Centre, visited the village called Risco del Oro with a team of 18 medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, optometrists, dentists and pharmacists.

Lam’s trip, which took place from late February to March 7, was through the Ascenta Foundation, a Canadian-based charity that helps communities with limited access to health care. Each medical professional volunteers their time and pays for their trip, but they are helped by organizations in the countries they visit with accommodation and transportation to some of the remote villages in which they work.

While working in the village he conducted eye exams. The first part of the exam was to determine if the patient could see properly. The second part was to ensure that the eyes were healthy. If a problem was found, the medical professionals had the option to refer people to an optometrist from the region if they needed surgery. Some weren’t aware there were problems or that care was available in their region.

The optometrists took several thousand eyeglasses that were donated at various locations. If people needed a specific prescription that wasn’t immediately available, the professionals would send it to the country after their return to Canada.

Lam said anyone who has outdated glasses can donate them at their optometrist’s office and they will be used to help give people sight during future medical missions.

For more information on the Ascenta Foundation please go to www.ascentafoundation.com.