Meet Anita, an Alcon employee who volunteered in a SEE International clinic in Perquin, El Salvador with Eye Care International. She helped SEE volunteer eye surgeons, Dr. Bert Ungricht and Dr. Stuart Sondheimer.
Expedition Site: Perquin, El Salvador
January 29 – February 14, 2016
As I was walking up the dark steps my first night in Perquin, I was very nervous since I had no idea what to expect. Once I opened the door to the hotel cafeteria where we were staying, there were at least ten people heading towards me with smiles on their faces and open arms ready to hug me. All the weight lifted off my shoulders right there and then. Everyone was so nice and happy to be there! By the end of the night there were about forty people in the room. I was the only first-timer besides a couple of teenagers who came with their grandparents. We had dinner and went over everyone’s job assignments. I was selected to work in surgery.
After church we regrouped and headed to our assigned stations. Surgery meant that we had one day to turn a corner room of a local clinic into a working operating room (OR). We unpacked a lot of boxes with the Alcon logo on them.
By the end of the day all I could smell was bleach, which meant that we had a clean operating room! As we were getting ready to leave the OR, a little girl with her mom came in and asked us if we could take a look at her eye. Dr. Bert gladly took the exam instruments out of his bag and examined her eyes right there in the hallway. He cleaned her eyes out and sent her on her way. We were so excited that we got to help someone while setting up our clinic.
On our first day at the surgery center we had nine major surgeries and one minor surgery. Most of the surgeries were cataract or pterygium. However, there was a young man that came in a few hours after our surgeries started and asked if we could help him. There was a foreign object in his eye and he needed to have it removed. He was a construction worker that was injured on the job. Dr. Bert successfully removed a piece of stainless steel out of his eye. He sent him home with Ciloxan that we proudly produce here at ASPEX. I advised him to be sure to wear safety glasses and that his eyes are very important.
My job at the surgery center was translating, prepping patients and circulating in the OR, which was awesome! I got to learn all the instruments that are used in surgery and most of them had the Alcon logo on them. It was great to see that we do so much more than just make eye drops. Everywhere I turned in the OR there was some product that was made by Alcon. Doctors put a lot of trust into Alcon products and use them back home at their offices as well. I felt a great sense of pride when people asked me where I work. I would just point to one of the eye drops and say: “I make this product.” Everyone was so excited to meet someone from Alcon and showed appreciation for the support they get from our company.
“She Wants Me To Sing”
Since I was translating I felt a little guilty because my job was so rewarding. I got to communicate with the patients first, and I got to hear their gratitude and their excitement when we removed bandages the morning after the operation. It was a very emotional week for me. I cried at least once a day! My favorite patients that came in were an elderly couple that traveled from far away to come see us. They both needed to have their cataract removed. Since we had Dr. Bert Ungricht and Dr. Stuart Sondheimer working side by side, we thought it would be a good idea to operate both of them at the same time.
Halfway through the surgery I hear “Anita.”
I quickly grabbed her hand and said, “I am here.”
The wife was very nervous. I explained to her that it was important for her to stay very calm and still, and that I would be by her side the whole time. I also advised her that if she feels the need to move or do anything during surgery to say my name and tell me, “but please do not move.” That was something I said at least fifty times a day in Spanish. Once the couple entered the operating room, the wife asked if it was okay for her to say a prayer. Of course we agreed. It was a very sweet prayer. She not only asked God to watch over her and her husband, but she also asked Him to bless us all and thanked Him for bringing us to her village.
Halfway through the surgery I hear “Anita.” I quickly grabbed her hand and said: “I am here.” She squeezed my hand really tight and proceeded to tell me that she was very nervous, and asked if I could sing to her. Dr. Bert noticed a confused look on my face and asked me what the patient was saying. “She wants me to sing,” I replied. I just realized at that moment that I didn’t know any songs in Spanish. “She might enjoy a song in Serbian” (my native language), Dr. Bert said.
I remembered a song from my church that was very soothing and proceeded to sing. I could sense that the patient was starting to relax as she was holding my hand. When I finished singing I looked up and noticed that the scrub nurse was crying and Dr. Bert had tears in his eyes as he stopped operating. The lady told me how beautiful that was and thanked me. Moments later the surgery was over. When the wife got up from the operating table she started hugging all of us. The best part was seeing her hug her husband who just finished his surgery with Dr. Sondheimer.
I walked them out into the hallway, where they received their post-op instructions. As I turned to go back into the OR, I heard a familiar voice call my name again. It was the same sweet lady I sang to. She told me that although she did not understand my song that she would always remember my voice and I would always be in her prayers. Well, it was my turn to cry as I hugged her one more time!
Emotional interactions with patients like these happened every day, especially in the post-op when we removed their bandages and they got to use their sight after being blind for a long time. Their smiles were so precious, and I will cherish those moments forever.
“I spent eight days in El Salvador, but it seemed like eight hours”
I spent eight days in El Salvador, but it seemed like eight hours. Although we worked long hours, time was just flying past us, and the number of people we helped was getting bigger and bigger.
I was so deeply humbled by this experience and I am very thankful to Alcon, Eye Care International, and SEE International. I am already setting some PTO aside to join my new Eye Care International family next year.
When I found out that I won this awesome contest, there was a small questionnaire I filled out that asked what my proudest moment in life was. At that time it was my first job. Now my answer is completely different. My proudest moment today is joining the amazing group of people in a little town called Perquin, El Salvador. I was blessed enough to be part of a team that saw 2,180 patients and performed 42 successful eye surgeries. I was a girl from a small town in ex-Yugoslavia that saw missionaries when I was young, and said to myself: “I want to do this someday,” and now I did.
I am so thrilled to share this amazing experience with my coworkers. We are really busy here at ASPEX, and people tend to forget the impact we truly make. I make it a part of my job to remind them of that every day. I am so proud to call myself Alcon ambassador and a Medical Missionary!