Even during the best of times, life is rough in Haiti, an island east of Cuba that is considered the poorest country in the western hemisphere. But when ophthalmologist Dr. Martin Arkin, M.D., visited the poverty-stricken island last August,
he and his medical team had yet another problem to deal with: that of Hurricane Gustav.
A lot of patients couldnt get to us because the roads were washed out by the hurricane, he recalls. Some who made it drove through three feet of water to get to the hospital. It was a fairly mild experience for us, because we were staying at a hospital on top of a mountain. But many people build their homes on the side of the mountain and a lot of their houses were washed away.
Then there were three more hurricanes after we left Haiti and over 1,000 people died, he adds. It was pretty horrible after we left.
One of Northern Michigans top specialists in corneal surgery, Dr. Arkin of Bay Eye Associates in Traverse City has traveled all over the world for years to help people in Third World lands with their eye problems. Hes conducted eye clinics in India, Cuba, Honduras and Peru. I try to go every couple of years. Mostly I do cataract surgery, he says, adding that he also treats a number of non-surgical eye problems.
In Haiti, he was part of a team which included three optometrists, a nurse and a number of non-medical volunteers, including his companion, Kristin Clara, a fifth grade teacher at Mill Creek Elementary School in Traverse City. Kristin assisted me in surgery, he says, noting that volunteers tend to get on-the-job training due to the lack of medical and surgical care on Haiti.
Why did he pick Haiti?
I wanted to go someplace that really needed help, and I also like going somewhere different each time, he says. I went on the web and found the St. Boniface Foundation, a Catholic charity based in Massachusetts thats been going to Haiti for years. We met the team at the airport and drove up to their hospital, which was built from donations by members of the church.
If it werent for St. Boniface the people in the area we visited would have no care at all, he adds. Theyd never seen an eye doctor and they dont have any eye lasers in the entire country. Thats something you really need to have in eye surgery.
Dr. Arkin had to bring his own eye surgery equipment and microscope to Haiti, which involved shipping it piecemeal. Doing eye surgery involves a whole lot of equipment and supplies. I shipped it to the foundation in Massachusetts and then they sent a little bit of it with each person visiting Haiti until we had enough for 50 surgeries.
He saw 500 patients during his two-week stay in late August and did 16 surgeries on people who were so far gone with cataracts that they would be considered legally blind in the U.S. The remainder of his supplies stayed on in Haiti to be used by the next med-surg team.