LOUDONVILLE — Mark Burgess, a 1975 graduate of Loudonville High School who is the retired Ashland City fire chief and now serves as the city’s human resources director, spoke about his recent participation in the William Wolfe Memorial Eye Trip to the Dominican Republic to members of the Loudonville Rotary Club on Thursday, Feb. 25.
The Wolfe Eye Trip, Burgess said, is a tradition started 30 or so years ago by Ashlander Will Wolfe, backed by participation and work from two Ashland ophthalmologists, Dr. Mohinder Gupta and Dr. James Patterson. Wolfe has since passed, and his role, as expedition organizer and leader, filled by Pete Snyder.
Burgess said this year’s eye trip involved a team of 17 people, all volunteers who pay their own way to make the trip, including flight, to the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo.
"If you land in Santo Domingo and turn left, you head toward the beaches of Punta Cana that attract thousands of vacationers each year," Burgess said. "We turned right, west, towards Haiti and the poorer part of the Dominican Republic."
There Burgess, the two ophthalmologists and others on the team set up shop to examine and treat hundreds of impoverished Dominicans. In a week, they examined over 750 people, issued over 1,000 pair of eyeglasses (usually donated used glasses from organizations like VOSH and SEE) and performed needed eye surgeries on 33 patients.
All of this work was done in primitive conditions in unending heat ("it rarely got below 80 degrees, even at night," Burgess said). The base of operations was a missionary compound operated by missionaries Gary and Cindy Kline, "with surgeries performed in their living room and instruments sterilized in the kitchen," Burgess said. "We slept upstairs in bunk beds taken from a closed prison, while the surgery bed was an old ambulance cot. To keep the cot from rolling, we stuck a wooden block against its wheels. We had no air conditioning, only windows. The electricity blacked out often, and the buildings had no plumbing, and therefore no running water. To get our cell phones to work, we had to climb up on the roof to get a signal."
Each team member carried two suitcases for the trip to the Dominican Republic, Burgess said, "one containing whatever clothes we brought, and the other supplies we brought along, ophthalmology materials, examination instruments, surgical supplies and a whole bunch of donated eyeglasses. Our examination materials were also primitive. We determined if a patient needed eye surgery by the hand test. We would wave our hand in front of a patient’s face, and if he couldn’t see it, he was approved for surgery.
"What materials we didn’t bring with us we had to scrounge around for," he continued. "Stores in the area were very costly, and very poorly supplied. In many cases they didn’t have what we needed anyway."
Among surgeries performed were cataract surgeries, treatments to correct blurred vision and eye damages caused by being exposed for prolonged periods by bright sunlight, Burgess listed.
"We also had a couple of college kids meet us who served as translators, since all of us on the team did not speak Spanish, and our patients did not speak English," he said. "The translators were especially useful as we examined patients and did the surgery." With the exception of Drs. Gupta and Patterson, and a surgery technician from Cleveland, Burgess said none in the team had any official training.
"The docs showed us how to do things, including examinations and even glasses fitting," he said. "Pete Snyder handled the logistics for the work, and my job was to keep things together. A lot of what we did involved herding people into the right place."
While the team completed a total of 33 eye surgeries in their week of work, the surgeries stacked toward the end of the week, Burgess said. "The last day our two docs were in surgery for 12 hours each," Burgess said. "This was a tremendous achievement for Dr. Gupta, who is 78 years old."
This was Burgess’ third trip with the eye team, every other year for the past five years. "There were 23 on the team last time, so with 17 our group was much smaller this time," he said.
Burgess’s talk was made more special as his parents, Gene and Ginny Burgess, both residents of McMullen Assisted Care in Loudonville, were brought to the meeting by Rotarians John McMullen and Logan Taylor of the facility.
Burgess also asked questions about his career as an Ashland firefighter and fire chief.
"During my teens, I was involved in assisting firefighters at a fire in Perrysville and found the work very rewarding, and so when I graduated from high school, I joined the Loudonville Fire Department as a volunteer," he said. "It is all about helping people."
His mother expanded a bit on her son’s fire experience.
"Over the years we had four fires at our house," she said.