Talon News - Good Local News



December 28, 2018

Robert Rivera with 7-year-old cataract patient in Haiti.

By Jacque Ritchie TALON

"I just kind of invited myself along," explained Robert Rivera about his first 2017 journey to Pignon, Haiti. Husband of wife Kerry and the father of twins, Rivera is an Aztec local who has worked as a surgical technician for 29 years. The last 18 years he has worked at Four Corners Surgical Center. "I actually trained on the job," Rivera said with a shrug. Rivera first heard about the humanitarian missions through peers at work.

Every year a small band of local doctors and medical personnel head to Haiti to provide critically needed eye care to local folks. Specializing in, "fighting curable and preventable blindness...these volunteers are making a real life-changing difference in people's lives," Rivera told TALON during a recent interview. According to Rivera, during the February 2018 mission, the 20 member volunteer team served over 1,100 patients in a week. The team provided between 700-800 pairs of glasses, and performed "at least" 75 cataract surgeries using around $100,000 pharmecuticals and medical supplies.

"I sorta just invited myself too..." added fellow do-gooder Kris LeFever. A graduate of San Juan College, LeFever has been a registered nurse for 21 years. Another important member of the SJC team is Farmington opthomalogist/eye surgeon, Dr. Scott Allen M.D. of New Mexico Eye Clinic. Allen specializes in cataract and refractive surgery, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic eye disease and according to LeFever and Rivera, Allen never misses a chance to lend a hand in Haiti. In February 2019, the group will make their third mission of mercy to the carribean island nation. Partially, sponsored by Florida based non-profit, "Promise for Haiti," the small group of area health pros will join other medics from North Dakota and Minnesota for the journey.

LeFever and Rivera schedule vacation time to coincide with the mission. If necessary, they pay for their own airfare for the first leg of the journey to Florida. To offset expenses some team members receive donations from fellow parishioners of their respective churches or other private sources.

"We take off from Durango and fly into Orlando, there we meet with other team members...then we drive an hour and a half to Fort Pierce and we spend the night there. Then at 5 o'clock the next morning we go to another little airport and we load onto this plane." Rivera described the Mission Flights International company, "They fly missionaries to all different locations." "They are all retired pilots that now, share their gifts, by flying missionaries all over," LeFever explained.

Rivera described conditions unlike the usual bahamian vacation experience, "It's a DC 3 WWII era plane with no cabin pressure, so we can't fly over 10,000 feet...the equipment is all on one side and we sit on the other. It seems like it would be scary but it's not, we feel pretty secure...it does get pretty cold though...The flight is really pretty cool, you can see Atlantis, you know, that resort? We fly right over it, the water is super blue." From there, the plane lands at Cap Haitian International Airport in the Republic of Haiti where the group passes through customs. Then it's a brief flight to the city of Pignon, where the hospital is located, "That landing is a little scary," LeFever admitted, "It's not really an airport, it's more like a little shack, with a dirt runway. So, we just land out on the grass." When the team arrives at the hospital the clean-up begins. The hospital out-buildings the team use stand empty for as long as a year at a time, until the American doctors arrive. "There's not really operating rooms it's all make-shift, we wipe everything down and make the space work," LeFever explained. "We bring all the equipment, supplies and medications." Because of weight restriction on the plane, the doctors and medical staff do not bring much in the way of personal luggage, "We really bring very little, it's mostly all supplies," said LeFever.

With a population of just under 11 million, Haiti is arguably the poorest nation on the planet. In recent years, Haiti has been rocked by earthquakes and battered by hurricanes leaving an already fragile population desperate for the most basic necessities. According to Rivera, even before the team arrives, word spreads throughout the countryside and people begin to arrive.

LeFever and Rivera engage in a back-and-forth exchange, setting the scene, "Oh yeah, the word gets out." "They drive along the roads with a loudspeaker calling out, 'The American doctors are coming!" "The people, they walk for miles and miles, or they'll share a ride on a motorcycle," "Yeah, like three people on bike" "Or they climb on the back of a truck or whatever kind of transportation, they can manage to get there." "When we get to the hospital there are generally people already there waiting to be seen...and we still have to clean up and unload crates and crates and crates," Rivera said.

Rivera recalled an experience, "So there was this little boy, he was about seven, he had been blind for about five years, he developed cataracts when he was about two...for him, we had to prepare a little bit extra...we had to put him to sleep, we had to do both eyes." Rivera detailed exhaustive pre-op preparations and described the three person team attending the young patient. "So we did his surgery, and of course, he had to have patches on his eyes right after." Rivera smiled, "He came back the next day to get checked, and they took off his eye patches, and he could see." Lefever added, "It was so bright, we had to put sun glasses on him..." Rivera continued, "It is so hard to describe, what going on a trip like this is like. That is the story I use to summarize, why, we do this work...Helping a kid to see, there's really no feeling like it," said Rivera.

For more information on Promise for Haiti or to find out how to help go to https://www.promiseforhaiti.org


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