Sea Mercy Eye Mission, July 2014
The Neatrour family partnered with Sea Mercy and the Fiji Ministry of Health to meet the vision needs of the remote Lau Group islands of Fiji. Beyond those who aided us with the mobile clinic on the Fiji Islands, many back home in the United States supported this mission and made it possible. Thanks to the local Lions Clubs, we hauled 1,000 pairs of recycled eyeglasses 8,500 miles by air, 350 nautical miles by sea, and 30 miles by land to ten different eye clinics. Thanks to Alcon, Allergan, and Bausch & Lomb, we carried 1,150 bottles of eye drops to treat infection, inflammation, glaucoma, allergies, and dry eyes. Thanks to the staff of Beach Eye Care for their fundraising efforts and for loaning us equipment to determine the refractive power of glasses needed, measure eye pressure for glaucoma, and examine the patient’s eyes for cataracts, pterygia and diabetes. Thanks to Sea Mercy’s Founder Richard Hackett and their Disaster Response Director John Ivey for guidance and direction. Thanks to the Fiji Ministry of Health for supporting our mission in their country. And, thanks to Montero Medical Missions for providing insurance coverage on the needed ophthalmic equipment. Many hands provided support from near and far to help the Fijians see.
Four flights after departing Virginia, Leslie, Katie, Greg and I arrived on Taveuni Island and boarded our new home for the next eleven days – the Dragonfly. This 65-foot catamaran, captained by Al Wigginton and his wife Jill, allowed us to venture to the undeveloped, unspoiled land void of hotels, restaurants, and in some cases even cars. Al built their floating home over the course of three years in Indiana and Florida, and then he and Jill sailed the Caribbean for 16 years before teaming with Sea Mercy this year to deliver medical teams and supplies to islands in need. Their hospitality, mariner abilities, and friendship were heartfelt as we all embarked on our new journey to serve.
After a 105 nautical mile overnight sail/cruise, we arrived at the dock of Vanua Balavu Island to serve its 1200 residents in the Lomaloma Hospital. Over three days, we saw 225 patients aged 5-79 and dispensed glasses for reading, distance, farsightedness, nearsightedness, and astigmatism. Assisted by a nurse from the Ministry of Health, Katie registered the patients. Leslie tested visual acuity, near and far. Greg measured ocular pressure and helped determine the power of lenses needed. I examined the patient’s eyes with the portable slit lamp, selected the correct power of lens for the patient, dispensed eye drops, and identified those in need of surgery (planned for a future surgical mission in 2015). We packed up these stations daily, sometimes three times daily, and moved from village to village to see the people that were unable to come to us.
Only 128 residents live on the island of Avea, our next stop. Here, we anchored outside the coral reef and rode in by dinghy with the equipment protected in a dry bag. We set up our mobile clinic in the school’s library and saw half of the island’s residents. In appreciation of their eye exams and new glasses, the Avea residents requested we celebrate by joining them for lunch sitting beside them on their pandanus mat in the village long house. Fresh fish, root vegetables, papaya, and bananas were plentiful.
Over the next two days, we traveled 85 nautical miles to our last island for this mission. During the course of this South Pacific adventure, we had learned how to bathe with salt water off the back of the catamaran, catch fresh fish for dinner, avoid the zebra stripped poisonous sea snakes, savor the fresh drinking water made from the boat’s desalinator, comb the beautiful Pacific coral reefs bathed in blue-green waters, and treasure the transderm scopolamine patches that fought against the seasickness one might encounter with 10-12 foot seas. In addition to all these fun new experiences, Jill continuously provided us with delicious meals and Captain Al handled the boat magnificently.
On day five of the mission we arrived on Lakeba, an island of 2,000 residents living in eight villages. Pre-clinic, we participated in a sevusevu ceremony wearing sulus (sarongs worn as skirts) where we presented the chief of the island with a gift of kava, a cousin of the pepper plant, which is dried and used to make a ceremonial drink. The first day in the hospital here, we worked nearly non-stop seeing twelve dozen Fijians – 144 patients! Over the next two days, Greg, a local nurse, and I kept the glasses and examining equipment company in the back of a pickup as we journeyed beneath coconut trees on bumpy dirt roads to reach five villages. The girls and remaining Ministry of Health members rode in the cab, protected from the intermittent rain showers. We worked in people’s homes or in community centers to provide vision to the residents of the villages. In return, the islanders frequently offered us bananas, homemade pastries, and fruit drinks.
Over the 11 days of our mission, we traveled 350 nautical miles to provide vision care in ten eye clinics to 570 residents of Fiji’s remote islands. We dispensed 482 pairs of eyeglasses and 150 bottles of eye drops while identifying 38 patients who needed eye surgery for cataracts or pterygia. The plan is to partner with the Fijian Ministry of Health to provide the needed surgical care when Sea Mercy returns in 2015. Our family participated in Sea Mercy’s first eye care mission team to provide visual acuity testing, eye exams of the front and back of the eye, glasses for near and far, and needed eye drops. We feel blessed to have had the opportunity to serve the needs of our fellow man in a beautiful country of islands on the other side of the world, surrounded by coral reefs, and accessible largely only by boat.
-G. Peyton Neatrour, MD