Ophthalmology Physicians Go a Long Way
to Bring Eye Care to Patients
BY JAMES PONDER, Office of University Relations, Loma Linda University
istance is apparently no obstacle for two Loma Linda University Medical Center ophthalmologists who believe in putting the “global” into “global health care.”
Julio Narvaez and Kelly Keefe
recently traveled to the Micronesian
island of Pohnpei and the Central American nation of Guatemala, respectively, to bring vision care to people who desperately need it.
JULIO NARVAEZ, M.D.: Back at work in
Loma Linda, Narvaez remembers his mission trip to the remote Pacific island of Pohnpei with great satisfaction. “It was really fun,”
he insists. “If we don’t go, some of the people there will continue to face blindness.”
When Narvaez heard about the eye-care needs of people on the island of Pohnpei (formerly Ponape), he joined forces with Canvasback Missions, Inc., a nonprofit founded in 1981 to provide needed health care and education to people living on the remote Pacific islands.
The other ophthalmologist on the trip was northern California physician Jeffrey Ing. Together, he and Narvaez spent two weeks performing cataract surgeries and other procedures on Pohnpei.
“We were in surgery six to eight hours per day the entire time we were there,” Narvaez recalls. Keefe’s recent mission trip to Guatemala is one of seven she’s made under the auspices of Helps International, a U.S. nonprofit that partners with individuals, businesses, corporations, and local and national governments to alleviate poverty in Latin America.
“For the last couple of years,” Keefe says, “we’ve taken Loma Linda residents to experience more complex cataract surgery in the Third World. We’ve also taken high school students interested in medicine and/or humanitarian work.”
Keefe notes the need for medical care in Guatemala can hardly be overstated. “Sometimes there’s a line of patients a mile long,” she notes. “Some of them have walked for three or four days to see us, often with no food or water.”
Not all patients come to receive help for eye conditions. “People come for dental and hernia care as well as ophthalmology,” she says.
The idea for Helps International began to take shape while the organization’s founder was vacationing in Guatemala several years ago. “The poverty he saw touched him,” Keefe reports, “and he decided to do something about it.”
To ensure that monies raised to help the Guatemalan people do just that, all Helps International volunteers pay their own way. Besides medical missions, the organization is active in education, community and economic development, and agricultural innovations designed to improve the quality of life in Latin America. Since so much of Guatemalan life depends on native forests, the group sponsors projects to promote preservation.
“The people burn wood to heat their houses and cook their food,” Keefe explains. “Helps International is teaching them to use a stove designed by a Helps engineer that burns only two pieces of wood per day. It’s extremely fuel-efficient.
KELLY KEEFE, M.D.: Keefe, an LLU ophthalmologist, worked
in Guatemala under the
auspices of Helps International.
“The group also builds many schools in Guatemala to teach them how to teach their own people,” she continues. “The country can never come out of poverty unless they educate the people.”
Narvaez and Keefe found enormous satisfaction in helping people in need.
“There was a little girl who was 6 years old,” Keefe recalls. “She’d had cataracts since she was 2. It was probably nutritional in origin. After she had cataract surgery, it was amazing to watch her see her mom’s face for the first time in four years. She smiled, then reached out and touched her. We all cried.”
“It was really fun helping the folk on Pohnpei,” Narvaez notes. “If we don’t go there, some of the people there will continue to face blindness. Here in the U.S.A., if I’m not available to do eye surgery on an individual, there is access to other well-qualified physicians who will be able to help them. It’s not that way over there.”