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In 1996, the Diocese of Helena, Montana established a permanent Mission in the town of Santo Tomas la Union, in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. The clinic at the mission, called Clinica Maxena, was built in order to provide medical, dental, and optical assistance to the people of this region. This is a very remote area of the country. The nearest government hospital is located in the city of Mazatenango, which is roughly 2 hours away by car, on winding mountainous roads.

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow: Mission to Guatemala
Since 1996, a team of ophthalmologists from the United States has journeyed to the Mission in order to provide eye care to this remote area of the country. The team travels to this area twice per year for a one week period, usually in February and then again in September. Since there are no ophthalmologists practicing regularly in this area of the country, these people would not otherwise have access to ophthalmic care and surgery. An eye clinic is set up to diagnose and treat common ophthalmic conditions, such as dry eyes, conjunctivitis, glaucoma, and cataracts. An operating room is also set up, equipped with an operating microscope and surgical instruments. Surgical supplies and ophthalmic medications are donated to the team from various corporate sponsors. The eye clinic and operating room is open for five days only, usually Monday to Friday of that week. Then the team leaves, only to return for the next session months later.

The main surgery which is performed is cataract surgery.  Since there is limited time and resources to perform ophthalmic surgery, only the patients with the worst vision from cataracts qualify for cataract surgery.  These cataracts are usually “white” and the patients can barely see light out of that eye.  Performing cataract surgery on these patients can be of critical economic importance to a family.  Nursing homes and assisted-living communities do not exist down there, so this means that the blind elderly of this country must be looked after by a family member. While this is ensures the safety of their blind relative, it also prevents this family member from working and earning money to support the rest of the family.  Performing cataract surgery on this elderly individual not only restores their vision so that they may be more independent, it also frees up that family member in order to earn more money for their family.  This could be the difference between starving and having enough to eat.

Several years ago, I joined this team of doctors and nurses on their medical mission to Guatemala. I worked with two ophthalmologists and three ophthalmic nurses from the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a very rewarding experience, not only to help the people of Santo Tomas but also to experience living in a third world country. So much we take for granted here in the United States. It gave me an appreciation for just how fortunate we really are.
If you’d like to learn more about the Mission in Santo Tomas, follow this link:



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Lillian C. Lee, M.D. | (858) 451-8600