Every three years a group of medical professionals travel to Nicaragua for a campaign to rural communities with limited access to healthcare.
Organized through the Ascenta Foundation based out of Vancouver, the group travels to Risco d’Oro with a team of volunteers.
Each team is comprised of doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, translators, drivers, cooks and security personnel.
Joining the campaign this year in May was local optometrist Dr. Dean Nisbett of Huron Optometric Centre on West St. along with the local business’ two vision therapists, Leslie Dixon-Rose and Laurie Donnelly.
“It was Leslie’s idea, she wanted to go on a mission. Finally, this one came along and it was the first one for Leslie and I,” Dr. Dean Nisbett told the Signal Star.
“Laurie has been on a mission before but not eye care missions.”
Canadian group Ascenta has completed missions to Nicaragua every three years and they work in partnership with Calibre Mining.
In 2013, the Foundation and Calibre Mining conducted a four-day medical campaign where approximately 2,100 patients were treated.
In 2016, over 2,200 patients were treated over a four and a half day clinic and three years later local experts travelled to Nicaragua to join in the efforts to provide services for rural communities.
“I’ve done a fair amount of travelling and have recognized how fortunate we are here, that we have a service that we can provide,” Leslie Dixon-Rose admitted.
Currently on the list of countries advised for Canadians not to travel to, military escorts transported volunteers on the campaign in Nicaragua.
Transportation from the compound to the clinics in a village took an hour and a half through incredibly rough roads, escorted by military with heavy artillery.
“We weren’t allowed to go anywhere without a guard. We couldn’t leave the compound without them,” said Leslie.
“The first day, it was sort of unsettling but then you start to feel safe, because 24 hours a day they were around.”
The community of Riscos de Oro is in a remote area and is located an-hours drive northeast of Rosita, which is home to the closest medical facility.
Equipped to handle procedures, more serious attention must be sought in Managua, which is often a prohibitively expensive 90-minute flight south.
Many residents of Riscos de Oro and the surrounding area live in such poverty that they do not have the home comforts of electricity and running water, let alone a car to drive to receive medical services.
“Some have to walk for two days to get to the clinic,” said Dean and Leslie.
“We complain that we have to wait three hours in the ER to be seen, but these people have waited three years.”
For many residents, the last time they were seen by a medical professional was when the Ascenta Foundation brought a campaign to them in 2016.
Creating a makeshift clinic in an old school, classrooms were cleared out and residents were triaged by local nurses.
Dean, Leslie and Laurie along with the team of medical expert volunteers began their days at 5:30 a.m. and the gates to the clinics closed at 4 p.m., heading to the compound before dark.
While speaking to the Signal Star on their experience, Leslie told a story of a woman who appeared at the gates of the clinic on the first day.
She had been kicked by her mule, her means of transportation, and had a broken pelvis and femur. Fortunately, the doctors saw the severity of her injuries, provided pain medication and she was taken to a hospital.
“What would have happened if that happened the week before, or the month before? It’s hard to imagine and to comprehend just not having a service available,” contemplated Leslie.
The optometry team had a little over 800 pairs of donated glasses and sunglasses, which can be donated to Huron Optometric Centre in town. Once prescriptions were generated, the closest match was given to patients.
Dean fondly recounted an experience with a patient who came in with cataracts, who had no vision for the past 15 years.
“In our stock of lenses, unbelievably, we had a plus 14. We put those on and she could see her daughters face for the first time and was touching her face. It was really moving to see that,” Dean added.
During the campaign, the overall patient count was 2,353. From that list a total of 1,028 were seen in optometry and 413 pairs of glasses were distributed.
Dean admitted that being around a team of volunteers creating a caring community for the residents of Riscos de Oro was a powerful experience.
An eye opening and life changing experience, the campaign reminded Dean, Leslie and Laurie how grateful Canadians should be for the services available. The three admitted that the difference between them selves and the patients they treated on the campaign is that they born in Canada and the others in Nicaragua.
“A woman the same age as me has the same wants for her family as I have. She wants her kids to be healthy and happy, and I want my kids to be healthy and happy,” said Leslie.
“My situation compared to hers is so different and I don’t think you realize how many services we take for granted.”
Laurie continued that sentiment, adding that a lasting impact of the campaign for her was that everybody was helping other people in need.
She said that being able to give back can change a person and stepping outside of your comfort zone to help benefit others is important.
“You can’t un-see and un-hear what you see and hear and it becomes the fabric of you. It makes you appreciate the life we have here more and complain less,” added Laurie.
A life-changing experience for Dean, Leslie and Laurie, they came home to Goderich with a deeper appreciation for the medical services and home comforts available to them in Canada.
Seeing families travelling by foot with elderly family members or children, in their Sunday best to be receive medical assessment and treatment changed them.
Watching the gates close and knowing patients had to walk hours back from where they came or sleep in a field, all to have their eyes tested or have a doctor aid an ailment, changed them.
Knowing they used their expertise to help residents of Riscos de Oro live healthier, less painful lives or help them see for the first time in over a decade changed them.
“I think we got more out of helping and got more out of the experience than the patients did,” said Leslie.
The campaign to Nicaragua gave so much to Dean, Leslie and Laurie that they have plans to return to Nicaragua in another three years and are looking to get involved in optometry specific campaigns.