Connecting to the People of Piura

By Anthony Calacino
Piura connecting“Oh Anthony,” a female voice echoed in the hallway. I stopped, heard my name called again, and turned. I was in the Hospital Santa Rosa, in the operating room, during VHI’s recent field program to Piura, Peru. I was a little puzzled. Someone was calling my name, but no one seemed to be speaking to me. I walked into the waiting area and saw the reason for my confusion, a young boy who was soon to undergo strabismus (crossed-eyes) surgery. The boy’s name, Anthony—coincidentally the same spelling—was the recipient of no little affection from a group of VHI translators. When I introduced myself, both the young patient and his mother were happy to meet another Anthony.

When it was time, Melissa—a volunteer nurse from California—walked Anthony back into the OR for his surgery. Once the surgery began, I went into the room. I had witnessed several strabismus surgeries up to that point, and I was still overwhelmed by the calmness Dr. Foster—an Ophthalmologist from California—displayed when performing such a delicate procedure. After several minutes, I began thinking about a question I had from the first day of the program: Why is VHI doing cosmetic surgery? Strabismus is not life-threatening or entirely vision imperative. However, both of VHI’s programs in Peru for 2014 dealt strictly with strabismus.

Strabismus surgery can help improve visual acuity. Yet it is not like cataracts where vision is restored. Looking at Anthony’s eyes in the photo of us before his surgery, I had my answer to this question. Strabismus can mean an entire life of ridicule. Despite strabismus having no connection to mental cognition, its stigma can make people think someone with strabismus is less competent. Strabismus in a child—like in Anthony’s case—can mean  ridicule at school by other children, and even exclusion. Thus, in a country such as Peru with limited opportunities, something like a way-ward eye can be a challenge to live with.

When Dr. Foster finished the operation, I think I understood better as to why VHI focused on strabismus surgery: to give those who had little hope before, access to more opportunities in life.

Later, and after Anthony woke up from the anesthesia, he left the hospital on his father’s shoulders. Anthony gave me a tired smile on his way out. Anthony, along with 43 other children and adults received strabismus surgery. However, it was not enough. The demand for eye care in Piura is far greater than what VHI can accomplish in a series of annually scheduled one-week programs.

Seeing the doctors, techs, nurses, and translators work from sun-up to sun-down shows how taxing a program like this can be. I talked to many volunteers as the program ended, and no one regretted coming. A program like Piura is hard work, and only because of the amazing spirit of each individual volunteer, this program took place.Yet we need to do more for the sake of kids like Anthony.

Thankfully, the number of ophthalmologists working in Piura is increasing, and more people will receive the vision health care they need. VHI remains the best hope for many children and adults in the region.  As a result, VHI has already begun planning its return to Piura next summer.