This initial trial humanitarian optometric program in Haiti, based in the commune of Cap-Haïtien, took place over the Christmas holiday of 1968-1969. The seven-person team included Dr. Phillips and five other PCO students, plus Lester Janoff, OD ’53, as faculty advisor. All participants paid their own expenses, supplied or borrowed instruments and supplies, and solicited donations of eyeglasses through organizational and individual support.
With the country in a police state at the time, Dr. Phillips was able to secure passage for his team with a laissez-passer, or special permit, through military checkpoints. The team was there two full weeks. During that time, Dr. Phillips said their team rendered care to approximately 1,000 people and provided 600 pairs of glasses. As Dr. Phillips recalled, “Toward the end of our trip, when all we had were a few pairs of prescription lenses, we would break them in half so people could use them as magnifying glasses.”
Even with the fall of the Haitian government and overthrow of the president, the trips to Haiti continued, with Dr. Phillips still involved, until the mid-80s. By 1986, “the political and security climate was considered too unstable to continue
student travel to Haiti,” said Mark Street, OD ’10, who along with Gwenn Amos, OD ‘92, are current co-faculty liaisons to SOSH.
As a result of both political uncertainty and safety concerns, in 1986 the SOSH team traveled to the Caribbean island of Dominica to provide care. Subsequent trips included service to locations in Mexico, Central America, South America and South Africa. Dr. Street was a team member in 2008 when SOSH returned to Haiti after more than 20 years. Each year the location for the annual SOSH mission is determined by the organization’s leadership.
In recent years the mission trip has occurred during break week between summer and fall academic terms. In addition to planned fundraising events throughout the year, former SOSH members have generously provided monetary contributions, as well as donated eyeglasses to help ensure a successful mission. Ophthalmic drugs, such as topical antibiotics, artificial tears, and other agents commonly needed, are donated by The Eye Institute as well as pharmaceutical companies.
Participating students have an opportunity to hone their clinical skills during an intense week of patient care activities. Faculty members on the team serve as the final arbiter of the diagnosis and management plan for the patients. On the 2016 trip to Haiti, 16 students examined nearly 1,200 patients and referred over 40 patients for surgical management of cataracts and management of glaucoma.
Bhawan Minhas, OD, who has traveled with SOSH on two occasions, noted how rewarding it is to see professional students, with very little free time, donate time and energy to mission trips and caring for impoverished people with significant healthcare needs. “In a time when there is so much division among people from different backgrounds, our students come together to help and provide care to people different from themselves,” Dr. Minhas said, noting that students provide these services in a challenging environment and without a single complaint.
Student members of the SOSH team echo her sentiments. Alexander W. Van Dyck ’18OD explained one of the patient care sites in Haiti during the most recent trip was a grade school, which had extensive damage. “At Salus we are fortunate not to have the same conditions while we learn. This trip demonstrated how lucky we are,” he said. “It was a humbling experience that allowed us to help people while we improved our clinical skills. This was an invaluable part of my education at Salus and I would do it again, if given the chance.”