On April 7, 2018, as I sat in the cockpit of a 10-seater Cessna flying from Belize City to the island of Ambergris Caye, I could not even begin to imagine what my time at the Stanford Belize Vision Clinic was going to be like. I had spent the last 3 years honing my clinical and surgical skills and now was finally a chance to put those skills to use in the international arena. Thirty minutes into our flight, the colorful, glistening buildings of San Pedro Town broke the monotonous calm of the surrounding azure blue sea as our plane began its descent. We landed uneventfully. I jumped out of the co-pilot seat immediately after landing to take in the view. Ambergris Caye is Belize's largest island, but it is only 25 miles long and 1 mile wide. San Pedro Town is the only settlement on the island with a population of approximately 16,000. Sand blew across the airfield as I looked towards the unpaved streets leading into the town.
The following day was the first day of work. We would be spending this week in April running an eye clinic with the goal of seeing as many of the island's folk as possible. An iron fence encircled the courtyard of the clinic, where a line of patients was already waiting when we arrived early that morning. Throngs of children had come from the nearby schools to be examined. Local families came by, as well as ex-patriots and visitors from neighboring countries who heard there was a pop-up eye clinic in town. Each day of that week, from dawn to dusk, my attending and I would do comprehensive eye exams on all the patients because for most, we would be the only eye doctors they would ever see, perhaps even be the only medical professionals they would ever see. My concept of ‘doctoring’ changed abruptly in this period of time. I now had to trust that my years of residency training had given me the framework to provide the best treatment for these patients. I had to also remember to look at each patient as a whole. Their eyes gave away their systemic conditions - their uncontrolled diabetes or hypertension - and I found myself counseling them on these disease processes, too.
My rotation in Belize reaffirmed the significant impact ophthalmology can make on an individual’s quality of life and gave me a sneak peek of a life in international ophthalmology. I am thankful to Stanford University, the Byers Eye Clinic, Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health (CIGH), BelizeKIDS.org, and Belize Council for the Visually Impaired (BCVI) for this wonderful opportunity to participate in this project!
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