In a tiny town in Honduras, hundreds lined up and settled in to wait for the chance to see again.
Villagers in the small province were waiting to see doctors from all over the world who had come to give eye exams, distribute glasses and perform surgery on those who needed it. Among them was Dr. Lawrence Stewart, an ophthalmologist with Eye Physicians of Central New York at North Medical Center on Taft Road. Stewart participated in the mission, performing surgeries to remove cataracts and more with the assistance of his office administrator, Colleen Richberg.
“I’m a member of an eye care group in the U.S. that provides services to indigent patients,” Stewart said. “We collaborate with a number of international groups, and there’s a high need for surgical services across the world.”
Stewart made his first journey to Latin America to perform eye surgeries last year, traveling to Argentina after hearing about the program from patient Clayton Koontz. He said the impulse to help in foreign countries was a natural one.
“Medicine is a helping profession,” Stewart said. “I’m just looking a little farther afield.”
Stewart began practicing medicine 20 years ago after completing medical school at SUNY Upstate. But his dreams didn’t always include ophthalmology.
“I was originally going to be a family practitioner,” Stewart said. “But during my last rotation in med school, I worked with an eye surgeon and just fell in love with it. It’s a real thrill to be able to let people see again.”
Stewart has long been interested in helping people. He recently traveled to the Gulf Coast with his son and two more father-son teams as part of Operation Southern Comfort, an organization founded by Liverpool resident Norm Andrzejewski that is working to rebuild Louisiana and Mississippi after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Nearly 2,000 patients seen
The trip to Honduras in February was Stewart’s most recent trek abroad. The mission, sponsored in part by contact lens manufacturer Bausch and Lomb, provided eye exams and medical services to residents of a small Honduran town that had no eye doctor. The local hospital had never performed an eye surgery; patients needing surgery had to travel several hundred miles to get care. In the week that Stewart and his colleagues were in Honduras, they saw over 1800 people.
“There is just a huge need for surgical services there,” Stewart said. “I performed surgery on several people who were blind in both eyes because of cataracts.”
Cataracts result from the clouding of the eye’s natural lens as proteins break down with age. There are three kinds of cataracts. The most common are nuclear cataracts, which form in the nucleus of the lens as people age. The second type, cortical, forms in the lends cortex and extends out from the center of the lens. This type is common in diabetics. Subcapsular cataracts, the final kind, begin at the back of the lens and move forward. Diabetes, extreme farsightedness, retinitis pigmentosa or steroid abuse cause this type of cataract.
“Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in developing countries,” Stewart said, “but it’s easily fixable.”
Since the town in Honduras had no surgical facilities, Stewart and his compatriots had to bring in all of their own equipment and supplies.
“It took us two days to set up and work through all of our equipment problems,” Stewart said. “But the people were so patient. They just waited for the chance to be seen.”
Stewart said he had been concerned about traveling to the Central American country, given its history of civil strife and violence.
“There’s so much conflict,” he said. “There’s this aura of taking your life in your hands. But it didn’t feel that way at all. The people were wonderful — very friendly and helpful, even those who didn’t know we were there on a mission.”
More need than time
Unfortunately, Stewart and the other doctors were only able to help a fraction of those in need during their weeklong mission.
“It’s heartbreaking to see people who are bilaterally blind and knowing you won’t have time to help them all,” Stewart said. “It’s hard not being able to take care of all of the need.”
Stewart said most the patients awaiting treatment can’t afford health care, even something as simple as eye drops. Surgery is out of the question unless the services are donated.
Still, Stewart was pleased to be able to help as many as he could.
“It’s very rewarding, being able to go into a place where our services are so needed and give vision back to people,” he said. “Like I said, medicine is a helping profession, and people get into it because they want to do something good for the world. It’s amazing when you get to make such a tremendous difference.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.