Visions of Help

February 1st, 2006
by Thomas Tomczyk

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Using a slit lamp machine at the Oak Ridge Community clinic Dr. Darin Bowers MD, and eye technician Debbie Anderson evaluate the results of cataract surgery of Sally Holland, a patient from Pandy Town.

Using a slit lamp machine at the Oak Ridge Community clinic Dr. Darin Bowers MD, and eye technician Debbie Anderson evaluate the results of cataract surgery of Sally Holland, a patient from Pandy Town.

Five patients, wearing dark glasses uncomplainingly wait for their turn to be examined at the Oak Ridge Community Clinic. Eight years ago Ray McNab, one of the five patients, paid Lps. 3,000 for the cataract surgery on her one eye. Today a similar surgery in La Ceiba would cost Lps. 15,000 and McNab had no way of financing it.

A surgery that in the US costs between $1,200 and $1,500 was offered at no costs to 11 patients from Roatan. The volunteer team from Piedmont Eye Center in Lynchburg, Virginia performed the surgeries and left a PHACO machine, worth $60,000 and an operating microscope, worth $7,000, to equip the Oak Ridge Community Clinic making it an eye care center for Bay Islands practically overnight.

The volunteers examined 30 patients in June of 2005 and on their January visit they were prepared to do perform as many as 15-20 surgeries. Due to coordination issues 11 Roatan patients received surgery at Roatan Hospital on January 10 and 11. Dr. Bowers operated on nine cataract patients and two patients suffering from Pterygium, a dust and salt caused eye malady prevalent in tropical climates.

The PHACO machine used to perform the surgery was named Capt. Pete, after Charles Bodden, the first Roatan client to be operated on it. The state-of-the-art machine uses ultrasound to brake-up the cataracts, and then removes the dead tissue from the eye. Compared to traditional eye surgery, the operation causes no scarring and reduces healing time. “The people here are very appreciative,” said Dr. Bowers. He plans on coming back to Oak Ridge once, or twice a year to perform evaluations and surgeries among the local community.

The idea of bringing free eye care to the Oak Ridge community begun five years ago with Ben Rosenthal, a semi retired plumbing contractor from Virginia who made his home in Oak Ridge since 1994. After bringing a free pair of eye glasses to a local person Rosenthal realized how neglected and unaffordable eye care on the island was. “Since we made a home here we wanted to give back to the community,” said Rosenthal who over time gained skills at evaluating eye maladies.

Rosenthal contacted Piedmont Eye Center in Lynchburg, Virginia and brought a donated slit lamp on one of his trips to Roatan. In 2005 Rosenthal raised $12,000 at his Virginia Presbyterian Church to pay for the operating costs of the Oak Ridge Clinic run by Nurse Carol Bloom.

The Blooming Clinic

Nurse Carol Bloom came to Roatan to attend a wedding of a friend in 1996. A year later she was back, taking part in opening a small clinic for employees and families of Marisco de Bahia, a seafood processing plant in Oak Ridge. The plant went out of business after Hurricane Mitch and the clinic then went into receivership by the bank.

Bloom has been in several serious auto accidents and was told that she would never walk again nor could she continue to practice her nursing career. “I knew that my head still worked and that I could wheel myself around in a chair and tend to patients,” said Bloom. Roatan gave Bloom the opportunity to continue her life’s passion and Oak Ridge patients received a chance at receiving attentive health care service.

The clinic started with a few plastic chairs, a large examination table, a few books and a few medications. To the rescue came the St. Louis Kiwanis Club that outfitted the entire clinic with beds, desks, chairs, microscope and other laboratory equipment.

The clinic has been able to remain open due to the good will of a local bank that owned the property. In 2004 two Virginia businessmen and the St. Louis Kiwanis Club came to the clinic’s rescue again with $11,500 donation. Clinic’s Board of Directors has been having lots of benefits to raise the monthly mortgage payment and reduce the $15,000 principal still owed.

The financial situation of the clinic is particularly difficult as it does not charge for any treatment, overnight care or medications. For those willing to pay there is a free will donation pan in the reception area. Part of the Clinic’s mission is to deliver free health care and over time the clinic and nurse Bloom were able to establish a working relationship with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies

“Once in a while we remove fishing hooks from a variety of places, or care for a stroke or heart patient,” said nurse Bloom. Every Thursday the clinic fills with patients waiting for their consultation or diabetic treatment- a prevalent and serious disease amongst the local community. “Those we are unable to treat we send to the hospital in Coxen Hole or La Ceiba,” says nurse Bloom who managed to bring several teams of professional physicians to the island. Specialists in eye care psychiatric, orthopedic and osteopathic problems offered their services free of charge through the Oak Ridge Clinic.

Currently electricity and medication are the clinics biggest expenses. After a 2003 earthquake destroyed a seawall protecting the clinic’s seaside building the issue of protecting the structure became another priority. “The tide has slowly pulled out the sand and small gravel under this corner of the building causing the floor tiles inside to buckle and crack,” said nurse Bloom. [/private]

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