31 July, 3:30pm EST - Dulles, Virginia

I've just arrived at my gate in Dulles airport. I've got 32 lbs of donated reading glasses (645 of them, to be exact) plus 10 lbs of food in my suitcases, so hopefully they'll arrive unscathed. I've spent my day here watching Olympic men's foil semifinals, eating Jelly Belly jelly beans, and planning a trip to Amsterdam for my layover there. The traffic was nonexistant, and I enjoyed a long conversation with the shuttle driver about how volunteering abroad changes your perspective on how privileged you really are, and about how high schools should teach a class on how to get a job and manage your savings. I got to skip the long line for KLM/Air France because I checked in online, the TSA agent gave me a fist bump for going to Amsterdam, and now I'm enjoying my last slice of NY style pizza while listening to Billy Joel play over the PA system. So far, so good.

Upon hearing that I decided to take this trip, most people assume that I must be interested in ophthalmology as a career. In fact, I’m probably the only person on this trip who isn't planning on or already attending med school. I had originally intended to study abroad this summer, taking HIV/AIDS and public health courses for six weeks at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS) in Copenhagen. I applied to and was accepted to the program when a listserv email popped up in my inbox announcing that Unite for Sight was accepting volunteers. Here was yet another opportunity to study preventative medicine abroad, but in a starkly different culture and in a way that helped someone more than myself. I had looked into the “Alternative Breaks” programs at the University of Maryland before, but they seemed more like a chaperoned learning vacation than an opportunity to get your hands dirty and help out. Unite for Sight instead required all the training to be done at home, then threw the volunteers out into the field to learn about the culture by doing. I had only taken one volunteer trip before: to Biloxi, Mississippi in 2008 to reconstruct houses demolished by Hurricane Katrina. Since then, I'd been itching to volunteer again in a way that will really make an impact. I started scouring the net, shopping around for a volunteer trip that was as intensive, intellectually stimulating, and productive, yet somehow Unite for Sight, the program that had fallen into my lap, won out. I applied, was accepted, and turned down my offer from DIS over the next week.

I also have some family history in helping the blind. My great-grandmother Lillian Fletcher had congenital cataracts, taught at Perkins School for the Blind, and was the personal tutor of Edith Thomas, a blind deaf-mute who was the best friend of Helen Keller. She and Anne Sullivan were coworkers who both face the seemingly insurmountable task of teaching a blind deaf-mute to speak while also being blind. However, only Anne and Helen went on to be famous, as Edith Thomas died at a young age due to her parents' poverty. You can read her story here. After Edith Thomas died, Lillian had her cataracts removed by an experimental new surgery, which restored her eyesight in one eye. She then took a boat to Hawaii to become governess.

Lillian Fletcher and Edith Thomas
Lillian Fletcher teaching a blind girl.

First, a bit of background about the program I'm about to join. Unite for Sight's mission is to eliminate preventable blindness. Since 80% of all blindness is preventable or curable, this means that 36 million people worldwide are needlessly blind. Unite for Sight reaches this goal by sponsoring each surgery, including post-operative care; paying the salaries of outreach staff; purchasing supplies as needed by the clinics; and sending volunteers with eyeglasses to each country to help with outreach clinics. I will be joining the ranks of nearly 8,000 volunteers trained since the program started in 2006, who have helped provide care to over 1 million patients and raised funds to sponsor surgeries for 45,000 of them. Ghana has a low density of ophthalmologists per patient, so each ophthalmological surgeon in Ghana needs to perform 1066 sight-restoring surgeries every year to reach the WHO's 2020 vision goal. Surgeons who are funded by Unite for Sight have their work streamlined by volunteers, so they perform 2500 surgeries per year on average.

Unite for Sight has programs abroad in Ghana, India, and Honduras. I chose Ghana to expand my cultural horizons the most. I plan on vacationing in India someday, and I hope to visit Latin America to volunteer later on, but I had never imagined I would travel to Africa. The food, the language, the climate, and the customs were completely foreign to me, so what better place to visit when traveling alone for the first time? I’d always felt that the my college, major, and roommate were easy and comfortable choices, so I chose this trip as the first time to dive head-first into the unknown.

While I’m there, I will be helping local doctors see more patients at outreach clinics by helping to run stations at the clinic which don’t require a medical license. The goal of these clinics is to reach more patients than was possible without volunteers, yet to still entrust diagnosis and treatment only to medical professionals. Ghana has about one ophthalmologist for every two million people, so the volunteers help each ophthalmologist reach thousands of patients each month rather than the few hundred that could make it to their clinic. Each outreach visit is made by a clinic, not just the volunteers, so that patients will have regular (they aim for monthly) visits from a local doctor and nurses that speak their language. Hopefully, this will teach patients to trust this doctor for their eye care, not their local traditional medicine man.

Before I begin, I would be remiss if I forgot to thank everyone who made this happen. In order to get here, I completed dozens of hours of training about eye health, cultural sensitivity, global health practices, and Ghanaian culture provided by Unite for Sight. I shadowed an ophthalmologist, Dr. Iliff, for two days. He was considerate, insightful, eager to help me learn, and shadowing his surgeries and clinic consultations was an unforgettable experience. I had to fundraise $1800 to pay for 36 cataract surgeries, which I did with help from my sister, who helped me put her beautiful floral photography on notecards to sell; Pilgrim Church, whose members were more than happy to donate and included me in their announcements; and my family, who put up with all my prep work and helped me reach my funding goal. Finally, I paid for my ticket and supplies from a grant from my late grandfather for travel abroad.

Thank you, donors. Thank you, Dr. Iliff. Thank you, family. And thank you, Granddad. To Ghana!

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