Sue Laskowski knows all about being on a mission. This soft spoken and gentle optician has been on 24 of them, as a matter of fact, returning recently from Banica, a small town in the Dominican Republic that borders Haiti. Her goal when she travels to these underdeveloped countries is to provide clearer eyesight to men, women and children who would otherwise never have the opportunity to see better. “These people are so poor,” she says. “They barely have medical facilities, let alone places to go to get eye care.”
Sue has been an optician for 31 years. She works today at Marshfield Clinic in Minocqua and has always had a desire to help people with their eyesight. In 1990 she joined Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH), whose mission is to facilitate vision care worldwide, especially where it is not affordable or obtainable. VOSH members travel to impoverished areas with the goal of improving people’s vision so they can be more productive and enjoy a better quality of life. The organization is composed of optometrists, opticians, ophthalmologists, medical personnel and trained lay persons who come together from all over the country and then travel to poor and underdeveloped countries.
Banica fits right into this category. The area encompasses about 70 square miles and has a population of about 8,500 people. Its main form of commerce is agriculture, which is done mostly by hand. Many of the people Sue and her VOSH team attended live in open air huts with thatched roofs. They travel primarily by foot and go long distances to seek any kind of medical care.
Sue’s Banica mission started with a request from a priest who oversees a Catholic school there. “He was concerned that almost all of the children going to this school had never had an eye exam,” she says. “About 50 per cent of the population of Banica is children and he also knew that many people in the surrounding countryside needed eye care.”
On a continuing basis, Sue is ever diligent about collecting used eye glasses to take on her missions. Collection boxes are set up at the Marshfield Clinic and the Lions Club is also instrumental in donating eyewear. Each pair is tested for its prescription and then labeled. On this particular mission, 1,261 pairs of glasses were distributed to the needy.
The VOSH team was in Banica for five and a half days and during that time they not only saw the mission school children but people from all over the area. “On certain days we visited certain villages,” says Sue. “Some people walked two or three hours to come to our clinic and there were busloads of people that would come, 30 to 40 at a time.
Each person was examined and Sue’s job was to determine their individual eye prescriptions using a machine called a refractor. “Someone had dropped the one I was using, so I had to be really careful with it,” she says.
While some patients came because they were near- or far-sighted, others had horrific injuries to their eyes. “These people have no resources to get medical help when they injure an eye,” says Sue. “Many times they will lose an eye because of this.”
Language was also a huge hurdle. “They speak a mixture of Spanish, Creole and Haitian,” she explains. “We had a man there who would interpret for us, but sometimes it got very confusing.”
Sue recounts a tale of a woman who came and took her shirt off in the examining room. “We had to explain to her that we were eye doctors,” she says. “They just hear the word ‘doctor’ and assume we can fix anything.”
Living conditions are also an adjustment, although on this trip they were better than most. The group stayed at the mission and even had beds shrouded in mosquito netting. However, electricity was iffy and drinkable water non-existent. It was hot and sticky, and the bugs were persistent. In fact, Sue was just finishing a dose of malaria medicine after her return to the United States and she had to have a typhoid vaccine as well as a Hepatitis A and B shot before leaving the states. Cholera and malaria are common afflictions in Banica.
After 24 of these kinds of trips, Sue knows a thing or two about what to pack. Items like candy and granola bars are popular. She also brings along a jar of peanut butter for quick energy, toilet paper, bottled water and lots of snacks. Stickers are also popular and are a particular favorite with the children. “I always bring enough candy to distribute and they love the stickers,” she says. “They put those all over their faces and hands, and just light up when they get some.”
But their faces also light up when glasses are placed before their eyes and they can see clearly for the first time ever. “The expression on their faces is just priceless,” says Sue. “It’s almost like they can’t believe it.”
Sue observed this over and over again not just with the children, but the adults as well. “None of these people had ever had glasses. The women who were far-sighted were so excited because now they could see close up and that would help them with cooking chores.”
But all the people who came to get their eyes examined and fitted for glasses were extremely grateful to the VOSH team that had taken the time to travel to their village. “The people in Banica were so gracious and so thankful for their glasses,” Sue says. “It just broke my heart to see how much it meant that we had come to help them.”
For Sue, helping people all over the world, whether they live in poverty or not, is a mission she will continue to pursue. “Going to these places and then coming back to the United States really makes you appreciate what you have in life,” she says. “I just feel like it’s my mission to share that and I feel very grateful that I can.”
Mary Ann Doyle is the associate editor of the Star Journal.
This story first appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond.