Volunteer medical team brings things into focus
October 21, 2011
U.S. ARMY KWAJALEIN ATOLL, Marshall Islands, Oct. 21, 2011 -- Helping the blind see was just one of the goals for a team of volunteer medical professionals who spent two weeks working on Ebeye and departed Friday.
Canvasback Ministries Inc. is a non-profit organization that has been working in the Marshall Islands since 1986. This year Canvasback sent experts in ophthalmology, optometry, dermatology and dentistry to Ebeye and Ennibur.
U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll's Host Nation Activities Office coordinated some of the team's logistical support and facilitated entry requirements and paperwork.
"The work that Canvasback does helps to facilitate relations [between the U.S. and] the Marshall Islands," said Bill White, a liaison specialist at U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll, or USAKA.
Jacque Spence, who founded Canvasback with her husband Jamie, appreciates the help provided by USAKA and the community on Kwajalein.
"What Kwajalein people do for us really make this mission possible," Spence said.
During this trip, the Canvasback team saw more than 600 patients, performed more than 200 surgeries and donated services totaling about $600,000. Volunteers donate their time and pay for their air tickets to Kwajalein.
Many of the surgeries performed were eye surgeries. Patients who were diagnosed with cataracts had the cloudy lens removed and replaced with a lens implant, with the goal of restoring vision to as close to 20/20 as possible. Patients were also fitted for prescription or reading glasses.
The group also brought many donated pairs of glasses in order to be able to closely match patients' needs. Other patients were treated for skin conditions or dental problems.
Some of the patients have not been able to see for years, and according to Spence, witnessing them discover sight all over again is one of the greatest rewards of the work Canvasback does.
"They were blind and now they see," exclaimed Joy Glynn in reference to the fact that many surgery patients' cataracts are so severe that they're considered legally blind. Glynn is a Kwajalein resident who volunteered to work with the group after meeting Jacque Spence while scuba diving.
Glynn said she missed an opportunity to work with Doctors Without Borders and that she had always wanted to work on a mission. She told Spence about her nursing background and did not hesitate when Spence mentioned the group was short one volunteer.
Some Canvasback volunteers feel a responsibility to do more for the Marshall Islands because of the country's history with the United States. Others find honor in having the opportunity to help and love seeing the smiles when patients realize their vision has been restored.
"My goal is to help as many people in my lifetime as I can who need the help," Dr. Jeff Rutgard, an ophthalmologist based in California, said. Rutgard also teaches classes in his specialty on a pro bono basis as Loma Linda University in California.
The patients who had eye surgery showed their appreciation in different ways. Some hugged the doctors. Another, mesmerized by the world opened up before his eyes, kept telling everyone how beautiful each of them looked.
For one man, an improvement in vision was absolutely necessary. He explained that his deteriorated vision was jeopardizing his job on Kwajalein. Surgery and improved eyesight will mean he can continue to work.
Patients who came to the Canvasback eye clinic at Ebeye Hospital were first screened. Cataracts and other eye problems were identified at this stage. If lens replacement was determined to be the solution, the patient's eye would then be measured to ensure proper fit for the lens.
After surgery patients were instructed to return the next day for post-operative care. Jennifer Van Brocklin, a recent Colorado State graduate, passed out bags with sunglasses, extra tape and eye drops so patients would be able to care for the surgery site at home.
Van Brocklin's father, Dr. Mike Van Brocklin, is an optometrist and checked on patients who came in after surgery. Dr. Van Brocklin invited his daughter to join him on this trip and she used it as a way to judge if she wants to consider a career in the medical field.
In the operating room, Sheila Jensen performed the duties of the nurse anesthetist, providing local anesthesia for patients. Cynthia McCullon, Cindy Stone and Joy Glynn were attending nurses during surgery, and Julie Wainwright prepped patients for surgery and ensured that the whole process went smoothly. The three performing surgeries were Dr. Mitch Banks, Dr. David Gano and Rutgard.
Staff from Ebeye Hospital helped the team with logistics and translations between doctors and patients.
The team had a dentist and a dermatologist whose primary purpose was to assess the need for a possible trip next year. Spence said that after seeing cases on Ennibur and Ebeye, Canvasback will be sending a dental team here next year.
One of Canvasback's first projects was a diabetes wellness center on Majuro. Experts there help those living with adult onset diabetes make lifestyle changes that can severely limit the debilitating effects of the disease. Classes during the three-month program include nutrition and exercise. They show residents how using certain types of grow boxes will allow fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers to thrive in the Marshall Islands.
At the urging of Marshallese leadership, Denis Yates, director at the Majuro wellness center, has agreed to open a similar center on Ebeye to address the diabetes epidemic there.
The cooperation of USAKA, KRS and the entire community helps this U.S.-based non-profit continue its service on Kwajalein. Spence said that the residents of USAKA have been more than gracious -- welcoming the team into the community during the two weeks they spent in the atoll.
"We've been invited to go scuba diving, and a few of us even got playing time at some of the soccer games," Spence said.