This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
By Vibhuti K., Solon, OH
He probably had only four teeth left, all of which were exposed in a grin as wide as the Amazon. His sun-darkened skin was rough from the dry climate, his matted hair was streaked with age, and his eyes were alight with pure joy.
“¡Puedo ver! ¡YO PUEDO VER! ¡Gracias, gracias, gracias!” he exclaimed, dancing around the small, dimly lit room with the sprightliness of a much younger person and kissing each of us on the cheek. After 80 years of poor health care and poorer vision, he could finally see. He pulled out a pocket Bible with minuscule print and, wearing his new glasses, skimmed a passage. Again, his face broke into a four-toothed smile, tears glistening. He looked up at me.
“Gracias, mi hija,” he beamed. Thank you, my daughter.
I was ecstatic. As a tenth grader, I had just conducted his vision exam myself. In Spanish. Never before had I felt more deeply and genuinely gratified.
It was June – winter in the mountains of Lamay, Peru, a remote village far from the medical technology of its capital, Lima. Several months before, I had been given the opportunity to join a medical mission with a team of physicians and med students, to provide free health care to village residents.
My fluency in Spanish would enable me to serve as a translator, and I was given the additional responsibility of helping organize an eye clinic. I spearheaded eyeglass drives in five high schools in my area and gathered donations from similar drives across northeastern Ohio. I then met with area ophthalmologists who helped me categorize the glasses, trained me to conduct eye exams, and briefed me on how to prescribe glasses based on vision test results. To further prepare myself for the trip, I downloaded and listened to podcast upon podcast of medical Spanish to learn even the most esoteric medical terminology.
I volunteered for ten magnificent days, traveling to four areas, two health posts, and two orphanages. I spent time talking with children in the orphanages, many of whom were abandoned because of disabilities and were in desperate need of medical care. They were delighted when given glasses, fascinated that they could now see the individual curls of my hair.
Physicians who didn’t speak Spanish would summon me to translate medical histories, symptoms, dosage requirements, prognoses, and prescriptions. Thrilled to be a pivotal conduit for doctor-patient interaction, I soon became used to the questions necessary for obtaining a medical history and list of symptoms. I could even conduct these rudimentary histories myself, without a physician.
During my brief stay, our team saw over 200 patients in the eyeglass clinic alone. Day after day, I watched the faces of grandmothers and young children light up as the eye chart in front of them changed from a blurry haze into a clear image. Day after day, our team was thanked profusely for our services with ceremonies and handcrafted tokens of appreciation.
This experience has irreversibly shaped me. During my trip, I witnessed the physical and emotional effects of living in poverty. I slowly began to understand the brutalities many endure, from confronting the daily stabs of harsh arthritic pain in order to get water for their family, to facing the fact that the cure for a newly diagnosed disease is available only in urbanized and distant Lima, a disheartening and unaffordable expense.
Yet as a whole, the Peruvian people always seemed to maintain a mixture of courage, perseverance, gratitude, and dignity, all of which shone undiluted through their faces. They taught me to maintain “una buena cara al mal tiempo” – a good face in bad times. They showed me that the journey to happiness is often uphill (and may involve right angle turns along steep mountains), but in the end, it is worth the trip.
Though we are many people in a gamut of circumstances, we are one people seeking purpose in the global community. Having broadened my perspective and worldly outlook, I am certain I will return to the mountains of Peru soon. I have encouraged many students in neighboring high schools to start used-eyeglass drives in their communities, and I intend to ensure that the drive in my school continues long after my graduation.
This trip has instilled in me a motivation to pursue medicine with a global focus. I know that my body, heart, and soul are committed to the humanitarian cause. I can’t imagine a more perfect life than serving the global community through grassroots organizations while working to expand the Lamay medical trip. Like the vision charts sharpening before patients’ eyes, my future has come into focus.
For more information on the organization, visit lamayclinic.org.