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A pterygium growth — where the covering of the eye grows over the eye's surface and blocks sight — on a 17-year-old before operation. Submitted

Americans' eye-care requests are simple: They want 20/20 vision without glasses, said eye surgeon Dr. Carl May Jr.

But when the Spring Grove resident went on a mission trip at the end of April, he saw a different kind of clientele: blind patients who needed only simple surgery to be cured.

"And they're just glad they can see somebody's face," said Dr. May, who practices at May Eye Care Center in Hanover.

He and his 17-year-old daughter, Carolyn, partnered with SEE International, the Flying Samaritans and the Colorado Airlift Outreach to fly down and bring eye surgery to San Quintin, Mexico. Carolyn, an aspiring ophthalmologist, came across the opportunity while researching ideas for her senior project at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md.

Spring Grove eye surgeon Dr. Carl May Jr. examines a patient’s cataract during a mission trip to San Quintin, Mexico, in late April.
Spring Grove eye surgeon Dr. Carl May Jr. examines a patient's cataract during a mission trip to San Quintin, Mexico, in late April. (Submitted)

"I think this trip really helped her decide what she wanted to do," Dr. May, 53, said.

Restoring sight: The morning after they landed at the small clinic, they found hundreds of people in need camped out on the ground outside, he said.

Without routine eye care in San Quintin — the next-closest hospital is more than four hours away, and volunteer surgeons only come to the clinic every six months — many patients were plagued with cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye and the leading cause of blindness in the world, Dr. May said.

As a result, all of his patients were either fully or partially blind, and most of them could only see light, he said.

Cataracts are primarily aging-related, but Dr. May's Mexican patients' conditions were worsened by poor nutrition, sun exposure and sometimes genetics, he said.

Most of his patients were older, but his youngest was a 15-year-old with diabetes and bad cataracts, he said.

During four days of operations, Dr. May treated anywhere from six to 10 patients each day with surgery. For cataracts, he puts a hole in the eye, retrieves the cataract through the pupil and places an artificial lens in the eye.

Hundreds of people camped outside this small clinic in San Quintin, Mexico, with the hopes of having their eyesight restored. Loosely translated, the sign
Hundreds of people camped outside this small clinic in San Quintin, Mexico, with the hopes of having their eyesight restored. Loosely translated, the sign says, "Eye campaign here." Submitted

"Almost immediately, they can see," said Carolyn, who helped translate, operate machines and care for patients.

Thankful: After surgery, the patients each wore a patch over the eye that was operated on — only one could be fixed at a time, Dr. May said.

All 36 volunteers on the trip — pilots, help staff, nurses, techs and doctors — would come together during the post-op appointment to see patients' patches removed, he said. Many of the patients came to their appointments in the same clothes they had worn before, May said.

"These people are blind and destitute with nothing but the clothes on their backs," he said. Some hadn't seen their families in decades: One man hadn't seen his wife in 20 years, so he pictured how she looked by her voice — and was surprised at how old she actually was, Carolyn said. Families cried and hugged each other, and a couple people tried to pay or give the doctors trinkets, she said.

"It makes you want to keep doing it," Dr. May said, noting that about 80 patients were treated by three eye surgeons during the trip, and about 1,000 received glasses.

Two different worlds: The operating conditions in San Quintin were very different from his Hanover practice, he said.

For example, the one-floor clinic contains only two operating rooms, and two of Dr. May's surgeries were interrupted by emergency C-sections, he said. The building also ran out of water at one point, and doctors had to wait for four hours for a water truck to arrive, Dr. May said.

U.S. patients are sedated during surgery — they're awake, but they're relaxed and comfortable, he said. In Mexico, patients only had numbing drops, but they were mostly still and calm, Dr. May said.

He completes a typical U.S. operation in 10 to 15 minutes, he said. Surgery time in Mexico ran from an hour to an hour and a half because of the density of the cataracts and the donated, less modern equipment, he said.

For instance, the microscope was poor — and, unlike in the states, not foot-powered — so every time a patient moved, he'd have to put down his tools to rearrange it, he said. And because his blade was reused so often, it would cut like a butterknife and bend at times, he said.

Dr. May didn't think he would have the chance to go on a mission trip until his kids were out of school — his youngest is 8 years old — so he was glad to give back.

"I have to say, I learned a lot ... It made me a better surgeon, and it made me appreciate what we have here," he said.

Part of being a doctor is giving back as much as possible, he said, so the father-daughter duo is already planning to do another trip, either on their own or with an organization.