Latest Haiti Service Trip Featuring Three Doctors of Optometry More Harrowing Than Anticipated
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Latest Haiti Service Trip Featuring Three Doctors of Optometry More Harrowing Than Anticipated

David McPhillips, OD ‘85, FAAO, FVI has been going on Volunteer Optometric Service to Humanity (VOSH) trips to Haiti since he was a student in the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) in the mid-1980s. In the recent past, Haiti’s political unrest has given volunteers on humanitarian trips pause when deciding whether to embark on such trips.

But the last Pennsylvania chapter VOSH trip in March 2024, turned out to be a little more challenging than usual for a small group of six, which included Dr. McPhillips, two other PCO/Salus doctors, Mark Rakoczy, OD ‘81, FVI, and Mike Satryan, OD ‘84, and three optometric technicians.

Dr. McPhillips examining patient in HaitiIn fact, they almost couldn’t get out of the country. Things started to break down midway through the trip with political unrest in the country’s capital, Port au Prince, after the escape of 4,500 prisoners from two national prisons

“There was no more alarm than normal,” said Dr. McPhillips. "We were in Cap Haïtien, which is in the northern part of the country. It’s a couple-hour flight or an all day and night drive through the mountains, so it’s not around the corner from where a lot of the trouble was.”

In the past when VOSH volunteers have traveled to Haiti, they would operate from a hub, maybe in a Haitian hotel, and then travel out to different villages in remote areas where the care was needed. This time, however, they were based at New Hope Hospital in Cap Haïtien and patients traveled to that one spot to see them, which made members of the group feel more safe.

During the four days of the clinic, a total of 649 patients were examined, including 56 students of different ages attending neighboring schools. A lot of previously diagnosed glaucoma received free medications through the hospital’s pharmacy. Thirty-three patients were referred for cataract surgery, nine for pterygia (noncancerous, fleshy, wedge-shaped growths of the conjunctive that can affect one of both eyes), two for narrow angles, one for acute closed-angle glaucoma, one for chronic chalazion (a small bump in the eyelid caused by a blockage of a tiny oil gland), one for conjunctival growth, and one bilateral papilledema, also known as optic disc swelling, which ultimately was diagnosed as a brain tumor.

But after the team arrived at New Hope Hospital and got to work, things broke down even further in Port au Prince. The then Haitian Prime Minister had gone on an official visit to Kenya to secure the country’s commitment to lead a United Nations-backed multinational police force to be deployed to Haiti to address the insecurity and gang-led violence. In his absence, coordinated gang attacks swept the capital trying to overturn the government. To prevent his return, the gangs first blocked the international airport in Port au Prince, and as the situation deteriorated, the airport at Cap Haïtien, which the VOSH-PA team had traveled to and from, also stopped operations later that week.

The VOSH group was now stuck in a country more dangerous than when they had first entered it just days before. And, to complicate the situation, group members had no Plan B on how to get safely back to the United States.

VOSH group in HaitiBut in coordination with VOSH Internationals officials, a plan was quickly developed. Group members decided to drive to the Dominican Republic, a neighboring country a few hours away by car, accompanied by two armed guards. Although they were stopped a couple of times along the road and asked to show papers, Dr. McPhillips said the VOSH members never felt like they were in any danger.

Dominican Republic immigration authorities were alerted the group was coming and eventually a bus took the members to a hotel near the Santiago airport, where after a few hours of rest, they boarded a plane for Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“You never know what to expect in Haiti, you always expect the unexpected. I think the airport closing was the concerning part,” said Dr. McPhillips. “You’re there for a good reason because the people need care and they live in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Everyone has great hearts and are trying to help.”

Dr. McPhillips said despite the harrowing experience of this most recent trip, he will still return to Haiti if he could provide services from a secure place, like the New Hope Hospital. “But you don’t want to put yourself in harm’s way,” he said. “There’s a fine line between doing humanitarian work and not doing something smart.”