Local Rotarians providing some Ugandans with first-ever eye exams

Susan Schrack Wood
York East Rotary Club

Editor’s note: Susan Schrack Wood is an environmental sciences instructor at Elizabethtown College and a member of the York East Rotary Club. She and her family joined other local Rotarians this month for a medical mission to Uganda, where the team is treating locals and teaching good health and medical practices. Wood is documenting the trip for The York Dispatch.

Dr. Amy Spotts takes a deep breath and prepares to see the next patient. She peeks out of the makeshift examining room set up in the Entebbe Hospital in Uganda. Patients wait quietly in line, hundreds at a time, patiently waiting for eye exams. Some have been waiting for days.

Spotts has found that health care can be hard to come by in developing countries.

"There are people coming in that are 60, 70 years old that have never had their eyes checked by an actual doctor,” she said.

One child stands with red, painful eyes, crusty with discharge, while doctors try to figure out what home remedy his mother used on him.

Spotts, an optometrist with York’s Designer Family Eye Care, is in Uganda as part of a medical mission co-sponsored by the Lancaster and York East Rotary clubs.  Rotary International gave the clubs global grants to provide medical and dental help to the people of Uganda.

Dr. Joe Rebman, an optometrist from Elizabethtown, has examined between 200 and 250 patients in the clinic each day. The most common issue he’s been finding comes from people’s daily commute.

“There are so many injuries from motorcycle riding, stones in eyes, scars and corneal abrasions,” he said.

As the line stretches outside the building, a tent is placed in the parking lot to shield patients from the strong sunlight.

Within the masses, a small group huddles together, desperate to stay in the shade. They are albino, and in a sea of dark faces, their pale skin is a stark contrast.

“I’ve already seen about 50 so far, and I expect to see about 100 before we’re all finished here,” said Bob McClenathan, a doctor of optometry from Lancaster who has been researching albinism for more than 30 years.

He says the condition produces some unique vision issues.

“Because a person with albinism has no pigment on the inside of their eye, light that goes in reflects around and doesn’t focus properly,” McClenathan said. This means they are extremely sensitive to light and have blurred vision, and their eyes have trouble staying in position, causing the eye to “wiggle” back and forth.

Dr. Joe Rebman of Elizabethtown Rotary Club trains eye doctors in Uganda in examination techniques.

Albinism is a genetic condition in which a person is born without pigment in the skin. McClenathan says this anomaly makes them very vulnerable in Eastern Africa, where superstitions make them a target.

“It is believed that possessing body parts of an albino — fingers, toes, and so on — makes a person powerful, brings good luck, and so they are sometimes kidnapped and sacrificed for basically good-luck charms,” he said.

In addition to examining patients for glaucoma, cataracts and other clinical work, the doctors are spending time teaching local doctors about disease and treatment.

Spotts is lecturing on trachoma, a bacterial infection that affects the underside of the eyelid. Eyelashes turn in toward the surface of the eye, causing irritation and scarring on the surface of the eye. Spotts says the disease is spread by flies.

“The flies pick up the bacteria, and through touching the eyes of the children, spread it from person to person,” she said.

It’s a disease that can be controlled by washing hands and faces with soap and water. But, as in many developing countries, sanitation is anything but simple when clean water is not readily available to most of the population.

The mission team is made up of Rotarians from clubs in York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Elizabethtown, Hempfield and Mechanicsburg, as well as clubs in Denmark and Brazil.  The team will return to the United States in late March.