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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 10:58 pm | Fair 51º


SEE International Volunteer Doctors Restore Sight for Thousands in El Salvador

More than 4,000 men, women and children in Chalatenango, El Salvador, had their lives transformed for the better last month, thanks to the sight-restoring work of SEE International’s amazing volunteer eye surgeons.

The humanitarian project, which took place Feb. 8-20, was a joint campaign between SEE International and Eye Care International. This impressive achievement could not have happened without the expert surgical team, led by Jeffrey Levenson, M.D., of Jacksonville, Fla.; Bert Ungricht, M.D., of Salt Lake City, Utah; and Mary Susan Carlson, M.D., of Falls Church, Va.

The dedicated team provided sight-restoring surgeries for more than 70 blind individuals; provided glasses for 4,000 people; and examined a total of 7,000 men, women and children.

In addition to the tremendous work that was performed, the expedition held special significance for everyone on the team. It was dedicated to the memory of the four nuns from Maryknoll, Ohio, who were killed in 1980 during the Salvadoran Civil War as well as the El Mozote Massacre of 1981. Many of the team members, therefore, took this opportunity to serve as goodwill ambassadors from the U.S. to El Salvador.

“This trip has truly been a humbling experience,” reflects Catherine Lamorena, international operations manager at SEE, who accompanied the expedition. “It has given me the opportunity to see in person the great work that our SEE staff do on a daily basis.”

“It was one of the most strenuous trips I’ve been on so far,” recalls Levenson, who has participated in multiple SEE expeditions since 2009. “We saw around 700 people a day. Every morning, we would get to the clinic, and the line of people was snaking down the whole street. Some of them started lining up at 4:00 in the morning.”

Most SEE clinics end their day around 5 in the afternoon, after which they are free to explore the town or countryside and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Not so with this expedition, Levenson says: “Every morning we got up at 5:30, had breakfast at 6, worked from 6:30 until 9 in the evening, had dinner at the hotel, and then we went straight to bed.”

But Levenson has no complaints.

“It was hard work at the time, but it was also a lot of fun and very fulfilling,” he reflects. “We had some truly amazing patients.”

In order to better connect with those seeking his care, Levenson asked each of them what they looked forward to seeing the most once their eyesight was restored. Most of them answered that they wanted to see children, spouses or other loved ones. One woman, Maria Gloria, however, took him aback with her answer: “I yearn to see the first light of morning as it streams through my window,” she answered.

“It really caught me off-guard,” Levenson says. “She was totally illiterate — she couldn’t even write her name. But she was capable of such poetry.”

The next morning, when the patients lined up to have their eye patches removed to see the world around them, Levenson looked for the woman, but couldn’t find her. Then he looked outside and saw her standing outside on the balcony. The medical team had already removed her eye patches, and she was watching the sunrise clearly for the first time in years.

“It’s moments like these that make the hard work worth it,” Levenson reflects. “Seeing her gaze out across the skyline of the town as the sun rose — we knew we had changed a life for the better.”

“The patience and gratitude shown not just by the patients but the family members have been beyond words. Every day those that have gone through the clinic and the operating rooms have expressed their appreciation through their soft touches, warm embraces and kind words of thanks.”

SEE International is a nonprofit, humanitarian organization that provides medical, surgical and educational services by volunteer ophthalmic surgeons with the primary objective of restoring sight to disadvantaged blind individuals worldwide. Since 1974, SEE has examined over 3.2 million men, women and children, and performed more than 440,000 sight-restoring surgeries.

— Stephen Bunnell is a communications coordinator for SEE International.

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