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7387: Visionary doctor sheds light on Haitian village (fwd)
From: nozier <email@example.com>
Visionary doctor sheds light on Haitian village
By Kristen Peterson LAS VEGAS SUN
On a clear night in Lascahobas, you can see the Milky Way. "It is
spectacular," said Kenneth Westfield, a Las Vegas eye doctor who has
seen the celestial view many times from the small Haitian village.
"There's no light to take away from it," he added. "You don't realize
you live in the Milky Way until you've seen it." If it weren't for
frequent visits from the Las Vegas doctor, however, many people who live
in the mountainous area would miss the view. Westfield, medical
director of the Shearing-Westfield Eye Institute in Las Vegas, makes
the trek to Lascahobas annually to treat patients who are blinded
by cataracts, in the early stages of glaucoma or who simply need
The medical equipment Westfield hauls to the village 45 miles
northeast of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti's capital, he leaves as a donation
to Lascahobas Hospital, a 60-bed facility that serves the nearly
56,000 people in the area. The hundreds of eyeglasses he brings --
unclaimed by those who have left them in Las Vegas hotel rooms -- are
fitted and given to those with poor eyesight.
To the villagers, he seems to be a miracle worker, a godsend who comes
once a year and literally restores sight to the blind. Hundreds line up
to see him when he arrives.
"It's just like heaven come to Earth," said Estelle Dubuission,
founder of the Friends of the Children of Lascahobas, a 25-year-old
small nonprofit organization. "Where would people be if they had to
pay for glasses, have cataract surgery?
"People walking in the street, they thought they were blind," she
said. "All they needed were a pair of glasses.Every year people come
and say they are praying for the doctor."
Lack of services
Dubuission, in her early 70s, is a native of Lascahobas who lives part
time in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has been working full-force for nearly 25
years to improve the quality of life in her village. The average person
in Lascahobas lives in a cinder-block house with a thatched roof, dirt
floors and no indoor plumbing. The conditions invite disease. Many are
too poor to travel to Port-Au-Prince for medical care.
Dubuission began by volunteering to drive children to school. In 1995
she began building Lascahobas Hospital, using private donations
garnered from New Yorkers.
Today the hospital offers emergency services, gynecological
services, a pediatric clinic, general medicine, a surgical lab, and two
operating rooms, and is staffed by one doctor and six nurses. It's an
improvement from the dispensary that provided services before the
arrival of the hospital, she said. "People were dying (of typhoid
malaria)," Dubuission said during a phone interview from Brooklyn. "Some
schoolchildren would die with their school uniform on. It was that time
that I said, 'The only way I will die in peace is if I build a
However, she said, "One doctor is not enough. We need more doctors."
To compensate for the lack of doctors, Dubuission arranges
humanitarian missions, bringing doctors in from other countries for
short periods of time.
Eye doctors have been traveling to the village since1982. Plastic
surgeons and dentists also make the trek. Westfield has been a part of
the effort for six years. He was invited to participate in the missions
by Dr. John Mitchell, an ophthalmologist and vice president of the
Friends of the Children of Lascahobas whom he met at a medical
conference. Out of the 650 patients Westfield met with during his
visit to the village in February, 55 were operated on to remove
cataracts and more than 300 were fitted with eyeglasses. Seventy-eight
were treated for early stages of glaucoma.
"There's 78 people who won't go blind this year," Westfield said.
"Glaucoma is irreversible. Once it's blinded you, you can't undo it.
But if you catch it early enough you can control it. A number of them
have (already) gone blind. "Cataracts we can fix it in any stage," he
said. "You take somebody who is led in, you operate on them, they
come back the next day, you take the patch off they can see."
"Forget ophthalmology, forget the eyes," Westfield said. "Women are
still dying in childbirth there. "Going over there once a year is
fine," he added. "But we want to get local (doctors) to go there in
between our visits. That's the end point. We're trying to build
relationships with them. (But) the truth is, they're busy trying to
stamp out disease in Port-Au-Prince to go up there."
Changed his life
Westfield said he is thinking of taking on fund-raising efforts in Las
Vegas. "It kind of gets you," he said. "Once you get over there you
see the need and the good you can do. I never thought I'd be this
involved. My life's not been the same since the (first) trip over." The
humanitarian missions are nothing new to Westfield. The Las Vegas
resident of 21 years traveled to Congo (formerly Zaire) in 1986 to
perform cataract surgery on the residents and to teach the surgery to
American and European doctors working there. Since then he has traveled
to Peru and Mexico on similar missions. "It's a different way to see
the world and learn the world," Westfield said. "The thing that keeps me
going back to Haiti is that Lascahobas is relatively isolated up in the
mountains. When we go there and treat for cataract or glaucoma there's
not another (eye) doctor that will come for another year. And it's not
just eye care, it's that way for everything.
"Mexico -- there's always someone to go there. It's close. There's a
waiting list to go on that trip. Haiti -- there's such a tremendous
need. Nobody else will go." Also, there is an ophthalmological mystery
to unravel in Lascahobas, he said. Macular degeneration is typically
found in people over age 65. It's the leading cause of vision loss in
the United States, he said. It's also common in other parts of the
world. "For some reason we haven't seen it in Lascahobas.
"Last year we did the first study," Westfield said. "Everyone over the
age of 40, we dilated their eyes and looked for it. One person had it
but he was from the Dominican Republic. We found other retinal problems
but not this one. "We're going to do a preliminary study. I think it's
going to be a combination of things, racial predilection, dietary
differences, environmental things. They don't eat a lot of red meat.
They don't smoke. Their body fat is zero."
Westfield speaks little Creole, the language of the village. He
exercises commands during surgeries and appointments using phonetically
designed cue cards. But knowing the language isn't entirely essential.
"No matter where you go," he said. "The one thing you can recognize is
gratitude -- in any language.
"I've got it made," he says jokingly, referring to those in the
village who tell him he has a place in heaven reserved for him.