Sonja Dickherber has been a patient at Pepose Vision Institute in St. Louis for years: first for corneal transplants, then for cataracts, and now, for periodic macular degeneration treatment. Over time, she’s come to know the physicians and staff, but she never anticipated the turn their relationship would take this year.
“Many people there knew that my husband and I have a mission in Haiti—and we go there about five times a year—so I get my treatments in between those trips,” Dickherber says. “When I was talking with Dr. Holekamp during one of my appointments early this year, she just said that she wanted to go along. I was thrilled!”
Dr. Nancy Holekamp, director of retinal services at Pepose Vision Institute, says she’s long been inspired by Dickherber’s dedication to the people of Haiti, and saw an opportunity to help. “Sonja is amazing. She’s legally blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other, but it doesn’t slow her down,” Holekamp says.
Knowing that Dickherber and her husband had established a mission site on the Haitian island of La Gonave, providing basic health care and education, Holekamp’s plan to perform eye exams and provide glasses received support from the Lifelong Vision Foundation, as well as from a number of local churches and organizations. “We had so many old pairs of glasses do-nated, we couldn’t take all of them, and so we’re hanging on to them for next time,” she says.
Holekamp’s involvement came together quickly. Within a couple of months, the trip was planned to coincide with her children’s spring break. “My kids (ages 14 and 10) are open to new experiences and were in from the get-go,” she says. Holekamp’s sister, Susan Davis, also joined the group, having done previous mission work in Guatemala through her church.
“Everyone immediately pitched in,” Dickherber says. “This was the first time we had kids come along and help with our programs, and it was just awesome to watch.” When not working with their mother in the clinic, Holekamp’s children spent time with students at the mis-sion school, playing soccer and making crafts.
“My kids realized that they’re not that different from these Haitian children,” Holekamp says. “The Haitian kids have nothing and yet they’re still happy. It helped my kids realize that you don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy in life.”
The group arrived in La Gonave on Monday, March 17, and saw almost 400 people for vision screening and refraction before leaving on Friday, March 21. Patients were brought into the clinic in groups of 10, and Davis began by asking them to read a basic eye chart—a some-what challenging task for the many who had never before seen an eye chart and don’t speak Eng-lish.
“If they were under 40 and had good vision, they went on their way,” Holekamp says. “If they were over 40, we tested them for reading glasses.” Holekamp trained her daughter to use an auto-refractor, a machine that provides a basic indication of what strength of corrective lenses are needed. With this information, Holekamp then examined the patient to refine the prescrip-tion. Her son then located the prescription among the more than 1,000 pair of glasses the group had brought. “The looks on the people’s faces when they put on glasses and could see clearly was just incredible,” Dickherber says.
Holekamp left about 700 pair of glasses behind and plans to take more in the future. She also hopes to involve her colleagues to help treat cataracts and other eye disease. “It’s just a win-win-win all the way around,” she says.