Updated: December 14, 2012 at 12:00 am
Last December, Dr. Ingrid Carlson was in the Caribbean scuba diving and staying at a nice resort when she saw a newspaper photo of a child sitting on Santa’s knee.
The photo caught Carlson’s attention for a couple reasons. Santa was in flip flops and shorts. And then there was the face of the child.
“He had woefully crossed eyes,” Carlson said.
The condition jumped out at Carlson, who is a pediatric eye surgeon at Mountain View Family Eye Care in Colorado Springs.
When she asked at her resort about how the child might get help for his eyes, Carlson was disappointed at the response.
“They told me ‘If you are sick and rich, you fly to Miami for treatment. Otherwise, you just suffer.’ None of them have doctors,” Carlson said.
As soon as she returned home, Carlson started doing some research.
“I learned there are no pediatric ophthalmologists between Miami and Venezuela,” she said. “I thought maybe I could volunteer my services.”
Again she was disappointed to learn that humanitarian groups such as Doctors Without Borders were not an option for her to offer her professional services in the Caribbean. Flying a 747 jumbo jet with an on-board hospital and living quarters just isn’t an option in the islands.
“They need that in a ship that could go island to island,” she said.
In addition, many humanitarian medical aid groups demand year-long volunteer commitments, which Carlson was unable to make.
She also became frustrated when she contacted medical facilities and schools in the Caribbean offering her services. She discovered the medical schools there do not conduct routine patient care as schools in the states do.
“I got a lot of rejection letters,” Carlson said.
Then she discovered a willing partner through St. George’s University in Grenada, a tiny island nation of 110,000 mostly poor people in the far southeast Caribbean Sea with an economy dependent on tourism and its spice crops.
After months of searching, Carlson connected with Dr. Orazio Giliberti in New Jersey, an ophthalmologist who organizes humanitarian trips to Grenada. He had no pediatricians in his group and Carlson agreed to volunteer.
“Little did I know what I was getting myself into,” she said with a laugh.
It wouldn’t be as simple as showing up in Grenada and working a few days in a hospital or clinic. Carlson had to assemble a team of three nurses and an anesthesiologist to take with her as well as everything she might need for treatment and surgeries.
The list of supplies was long and expensive and she asked medical suppliers for donations to help. She put together a slide presentation of the children she’d be treating with their crossed eyes, glaucoma, cataracts and assorted other issues.
“The need is pretty great,” she said.
Soon, donations of sutures, eye drops, instruments, surgical drapes — nearly two dozen different supplies — were pledged. Carlson also needed to secure credentials to practice medicine in Grenada and a stack of other paperwork.
It took six months to get everything shipped and paperwork completed.
Two days after Thanksgiving, the team flew to Grenada, landing late at night. At 7 a.m., her phone rang and Carlson hustled down to the clinic with her team to begin seeing patients.
“There was a line of people down the street,” she said.
Seems word had gotten out that a pediatric eye doctor was on the island and the residents didn’t want to wait.
They saw 114 patients and performed 12 surgeries before the team returned Dec. 6.
“The days were intense,” she said, describing conditions and procedures that would never be tolerated in the U.S.
But she said many of these folks live in dirt-floored, tin-roofed shacks and they were just happy to have a doctor available.
Several patients stand out in her mind. One is a 10-year-old boy, Kemon, whose father works as a caretaker for an elderly woman living on a former sugar plantation.
“Kemon was a really shy boy who was picked on and bullied mercilessly at school because he had these funny looking crossed eyes,” Carlson said.
After the surgery, she said he brimmed with a newfound confidence.
Then there was Prisca, a little girl whose mother spent all their family’s money to pay for a boat ride to Grenada to get treatment for her eyes.
“The surgery was a great success,” Carlson said. “But then we learned Prisca and her mother had no way to get home. They’d spent all their money and would be living on the streets in Grenada. The poverty there is so severe.”
The medical team paid for their boat ride home.
In looking at photos of the trip and hearing Carlson’s stories, I wondered if she’d go back.
In fact, she’s already committed to return next November. But she’s not content with just spending a week a year seeing patients.
“I’d like to go back and teach,” she said. “I’d like to see Grenada get better educated so they can help themselves.”
And she also sees the need for a mercy ship that could cruise the islands providing medical care.
She called it a life-changing experience and mentioned feelings of guilt that the need is so great and she only saw a few dozen children. But she said she was comforted by a proverb about a boy who returns a stranded starfish to the sea.
“I feel bad that I couldn’t help everybody,” she said, “But maybe Kemon is that one starfish.”