Some people travel out of country and can’t wait to talk about it when they return home. For others, such as people who travel on humanitarian missions, the impact of conditions in poverty-stricken areas can render them speechless.
Such was the case with optometrist Shaun Golemba and his wife Shannon, an elementary school teacher in Port Alberni. The couple recently returned from a trip to Nicaragua, where they and optometric assistant Lynn Lozinski conducted some humanitarian work.
“It was about a week before we could start talking about what we saw. It was like being in a state of mourning,” said Shaun Golemba, the owner and operator of Valley Vision Optometry.
The Golembas and Lozinski joined 16 other volunteers in a remote part of Nicaragua from Feb. 21 to March 7.
The other volunteers were doctors, respiratory therapists, nurses, two other optometrists and translators, Shaun said.
The initiative was organized by the Ascenta Foundation, an organization that organizes multi-discipline volunteer medical missions to impoverished countries around the world.
Golemba and Lozinski provided eye examinations, treatment and referrals, while Shannon, who is a teacher by trade, provided general volunteer services.
The group worked at a school that was temporarily converted into a clinic in Riscos De Oro, a small mining settlement in northern Nicaragua near the Honduran border.
While volunteers worked at the clinic during the day, they stayed in a hotel the town of Rosita, which is a 45-minute drive away. Robbery is an issue, so the group was given a military escort to and from the clinic each day, Shaun said.
Patients came from surrounding remote settlements. Communicating with them about the clinic was a challenge because there are no phones and much of the population is illiterate, so sending notices were out, Shaun said.
Patients ranged in age from babies that were eight days old to an 84-year-old man. Ailments treated included skin conditions, parasite infections, gynecological issues and copious dental work.
Prenatal issues were common. And Shaun saw several children who had cleft palates. People with bow legs, possibly from rickets, were common, as were people with extra digits on their hands. “These are the kinds of things that might have been common in Canada more than 100 years ago,” he said.
“Everyone has a radio so each of the 10 communities was called to come to the clinic on different days,” he said. “A lot of people walked and took two days to get there, and there were a lot of people who travelled eight to 12 hours by horseback.”
A lineup of more than 100 patients greeted Shaun each morning, and volunteers from other disciplines saw roughly the same. “We saw and treated more than 2,000 people for the four days that we were there,” he said.
Shaun treated a host of eye ailments during the four days he was at the clinic. Pterygium, a non-cancerous growth of tissue across the white part of the eye, was common. As well, every second person suffered from dry eye conditions brought on by the climate and bright sunlight, he said.
Because many patients were illiterate, nearsightedness wasn’t common. What there was of it came from people who created crafts, he said. As well, Shaun saw several cases of presbyopia, a condition that makes it difficult to focus on objects up close.
“In Canada we see the onset of it in people starting at age 45. But in Nicaragua, we were seeing it in people at age 35 and younger,” Shaun said.
It was Lozinski’s third humanitarian trip—the first two were with World Vision Canada to Mexico and Kenya. “I love to help bring sight to people who can’t get to a place where they can get help,” Lozinski said.
The Nicaraguan trip differs from other trips Lozinski has been on. “The other ones just involved eyesight. This trip was larger and involved optometry, dentisty, pharmacy and medical,” she said.
Lozinski remembers a little boy in Nicaragua who had severe hyperopia (farsightedness), the likes of which she never sees in patients in Canada. “He couldn’t see much of any detail in anything,” she said.
The boy was outfitted with glasses and lit up like a lightbulb when he first saw everything clearly.
“That’s what proves to me that this is worthwhile, to see that,” Lozinski said.
When dispensing glasses to patients, Shaun used glasses that were donated by clients at Valley Vision.
Some patients’ conditions were beyond Shaun’s ability to treat. He recalls a family of three children who he diagnosed with advanced cataracts. “Two of the cases were really bad but one wasn’t. They stood a chance of getting some vision so I made a referral for further treatment,” he said.
The impact of grinding poverty and multiple births from one mother made a deep impression on Shannon, who works as a teacher in School District 70.
She saw first hand that hard labour, poor nutrition, sanitary issues and lack of comprehensive health care combine to wear people down prematurely.
“Poverty ages people rapidly,” Shannon said. “I helped with a woman who was the same age as me (34) but I thought she was in her early 50s.”
There were no pharmacies and hence no birth control, and Shannon says she was struck by family sizes—in some cases comprising of 11 children. She was also struck by how children rode horses or walked instead of riding bikes or skateboards. “It’s like seeing kids in Canada the way that it was in early history,” she said.
She was also taken aback by the lack of infrastructure, roads in particular. “The ones we were on made the road to Bamfield look like the Autobahn.”
Of the patients she saw, most of the people she saw age 50 plus were men, very few were women, she said. As well, most of the people she saw were of mixed Spanish and First Nations (Miskito and Mayana).
“There are gender issues but they don’t seem to have any concept of race or racism,” Shannon said.
She remembers one little girl in particular. The girl was approximately six years old and acted like Shannon’s shadow for the four days that they were there. Bubbly, impish and full of wonder the girl often tugged at Shannon’s shirt for attention or to show her something.
On the last day there, the little girl ran away with the little bit of change she scraped together and came back with a can of Coke, which she gave to Shannon.
“If she were born somewhere else she’d have such potential but. Instead, she’ll likely have lots of children when she’s young then start to have health issues,” Shannon said.
“I wanted to hide her and take her back home.”
The group left Nicaragua and arrived back in Port Alberni on March 7.
The Golembas were glad to be back home, and found a new appreciation for health care and access to services.
“We even appreciated how clean it is here when we got back,” Shaun said.
The couple found they couldn’t talk about their experience for about a week after returning. But situations arose that triggered memories of their trip.
“How do you explain to a six-year-old child what a privilege having supper is,” Shannon said. “And when I see kids in a classroom I can’t help but think of that little girl.”