While many North Shore professionals and their families are preparing to enjoy relaxing spring break escapes from the cold and their daily grinds, North Shore ophthalmologist Dr. Stuart Sondheimer has just returned from his seventh trip abroad with Eye Care International, performing eye surgeries and providing eye care services in underprivileged communities — this time to the people of Perquin, El Salvador. During Sondheimer’s week in El Salvador, about 50 volunteers, including two optometrists, two ophthalmic surgeons and three medical ophthalmologists, tested, treated and operated on more than 3,000 patients.
According to Sondheimer, who has also performed volunteer medical services on trips to Vietnam, Honduras and Panama in addition to El Salvador, “Every situation is entirely different; every healthcare system is entirely different.” Some countries have very advanced equipment and facilities while others are not quite there yet.
The latter is true in El Salvador. Thousands of people come to receive care from the volunteers during their trips that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. For example, the average cost of a cataract surgery is approximately one thousand U.S. dollars while the average wage of an El Salvadoran is only eight dollars a day, putting such treatment well outside their means. Add transportation and housing costs during surgery and it becomes next to impossible. Sondheimer’s team treated two such patients, both middle-aged adults, who are now able to see again after years of blindness caused by cataracts in both eyes.
Eye Care International charges just two dollars per patient on these trips. For this small fee, patients are able to go through a number of stations to determine what kind of care they need. These stations include visual acuity testing, evaluation by an optometrist and ophthalmologist, fitting and providing glasses, and surgeries, if necessary.
Providing these services is not without its logistical challenges. For visits to El Salvador, everything from medicine to microscopes and surgical instruments has to be brought in from the U.S., and this requires an application and approval process. According to Sondheimer, invariably approvals are not received in time for the trip. This was the case for his most recent trip when the El Salvadoran government impounded their supplies.
“We had to work around that and purchase medicine locally and figure out how to make things work for everybody while we worked to get legal approvals, and then in the meantime we’re scrambling to get the best supplies to be able to help the patients because they just don’t have access to healthcare,” explains Sondheimer. They also often have to take time to fix their instruments and equipment that can be damaged in transport. Microscopes and other materials are often brought down in suitcases. For most of the trips they are, as Sondheimer puts it, “making due with what [they’ve] got.”
In El Salvador the team of volunteers took over a community center in Perquin, about four hours away from the capital of San Salvador, to examine patients and used a room in a medical clinic that they converted into an operating room. “We scrubbed the floors, scrubbed the walls, brought in the equipment and the supplies and put in areas to sterilize the equipment.” They operated on massage tables, relied on microscopes that were used in the U.S. more than 20 years ago and used surgical techniques that are much less advanced than those they would normally use.
It was actually Sondheimer’s desire to learn how to perform those rudimentary surgeries that led him to become involved in the mission trips in the first place. “It was something that I wanted to do for years, and when my children grew up I got to a point with my practice where I had the time to go,” he says.
He started by taking courses to learn how to do the simpler versions of eye surgeries, visiting other doctors and surgeons who had gone on the trips, and then actually going on a trip. He and his wife, Bonnie, went on their first trip, to Vietnam, about five years ago. There he was able to give lectures to other doctors, teach them how to use specialized equipment and perform surgeries.
Some of the countries he’s traveled to, like Panama and Vietnam, have adequate resources and equipment but lack the technical training. Sondheimer reiterated that it’s all about working with what they have and trying to fill in where the healthcare systems are lacking. He explains, “There are steps A through Z that are performed in the U.S., and in Vietnam they would perform steps A through G and then forget about steps H, I, J, K and L and then continue with M through Z.”
Meanwhile, El Salvador and Honduras really need as much help and support as the doctors and volunteers can offer. “There are three ophthalmologists in San Pedro, Honduras, which is a city of about one million people,” says Sondheimer. “Now compare that to the over 20 ophthalmologists in Skokie alone.”
For Sondheimer, it “really is a wonderful experience to go to places like this and get to know people and pull your sleeves up and to be able to help some of these people who wouldn’t be able to have care otherwise.”
Looking ahead, Dr. Sondheimer plans to go to Honduras later this year, El Salvador again next year, and hopes to one day make it to India and Nepal. “I definitely enjoy this part of my practice and plan to keep doing it as long as I can.”
If you are interested in going on a trip, donating to Eye Care International, or sending in material donations, visit eyecareint.org.