A Better Vision for Disadvantaged in Ecuador

Jul 8, 2024 | Our Stories

The vision for this international project is better vision for disadvantaged in Ecuador

More than 200 disadvantaged adults and children in Ecuador are seeing the world more clearly today because of an initiative of the Rotary Club of Edmonton Riverview.

In January 2024, Rotarian Paul Dusseault travelled to Cuenca, Ecuador to deliver 241 pairs of glasses as a followup to an earlier visit by the Misión Claridad optometry team. In October 2023, the seven-member team, which included Paul, two other Rotarians and other volunteers, assessed the vision of 357 people.

Patients included students from schools for individuals with disabilities and cerebral palsy, a centre for refugees, an orphanage and a village in a poor, hilly farming region about an hour east of Cuenca.

“The people who live there have no or little extra money for eye care,” Paul says.

Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city and home to more than half million people. The city was founded in 1557 on the ruins of the Inca city of Tomebamba, in a valley in the Andes Mountains of south Ecuador, about 2,500 metres above sea level. In 1999, the historic centre of Cuenca was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Misión Claridad—Spanish for “clarity”—is the most recent international project Paul has participated in since joining the Rotary Club of Edmonton Riverview in 2011. Becoming a Rotarian enabled Paul to pursue his passion for international service.

“Joining Rotary changed my life,” says the now-retired engineer.

“I always wanted to be involved in international service projects. When I was working, Enbridge had an in-house program called ‘Energy for Everyone’ that sent select employees to work on projects in Peru. I applied twice but was not selected.”

Rotarian Paul Dusseault with three young Ecuadorians who have just received their first pair of glasses.

36 pairs of glasses ready for distribution in the village of Junta Parroquial de Remigio Crespo Toral (Gulag), about an hour east of Cuenca.

Paul’s first visit to Ecuador

In 2014, an opportunity for international service presented itself when he accompanied a medical team to Ecuador led by another member of the Riverview Rotary club, Dr. Tom Greidanus. For more than 20 years, Project Esperanza has performed hip and knee replacements for adults and children from Cuenca and its surrounding villages.

“Tom invited me to join his mission to Ecuador. Without him, I would never have gone to Ecuador and done the things I have done,” Paul says.

Paul’s role was to manage the team’s finances, to assist with the logistics and to be available to be a gofer whenever needed. He also met members of the Rotary Club of Tomebamba, which partners with the Rotary Club of Edmonton Riverview in Operation Esperanza and other projects.

“While Tom and the team were busy at the hospital, I had time to get know local Rotarians,” Paul says.

“When I asked them about their projects, they had a list of what they would like to do,” Paul says. Those conversations led to the first of several service initiatives in Ecuador, supported by the Rotary Club of Edmonton Riverview.

Paul and his wife, Cynthia, have returned to Cuenca several times to work on projects, including repairs to a facility run by Catholic nuns that houses seniors and orphans, construction of a playground with supplies sourced from a local supplier and using local labour, support for refugees from Venezuela, and providing computers to schools.

“Finding projects is easy, because they just come to us,” Paul says. “People know Rotary is trying to help and projects come to us. The challenge is knowing when to say no.”

The seed for Misión Claridad was planted when Paul asked a local woman, “What is a problem that doesn’t get addressed?”

“Cataracts,” replied Betty Dominguez, who was helping the orthopedic team. Left untreated, cataracts can lead to blindness.

“This was a local need brought to us by a local person,” Paul says.

Image credit: bigstockphoto.com

Pandemic meant more time to plan

Because that conversation took place at the beginning of the pandemic, there was time for Paul and others to plan and learn more about cataract surgery.

“One of the challenges was to find doctors here that were familiar with the procedure for cataract surgeries in Ecuador, which is different than how they are done in Canada.”

A team was assembled to go to Ecuador in February 2022, but the trip was postponed until the fall due to pandemic travel restrictions.

The team that went to Cuenca in October, 2022 included three doctors who were familiar with procedures used in Ecuador. They conducted surgeries for 50 patients identified by local public health officials.

“They conducted screenings in the villages and then there was a secondary screening in the hospital before they given to us,” Paul says.

A year later, a larger team that included five doctors completed 87 operations.

Optometry added to Misión Claridad

At the suggestion of Norm Johnson, an optician and former club president, an optometry component was added to Misión Claridad.

For two decades, Norm has assisted Ben Doz, an optometrist from his office, in preparing for his yearly missions to Guatemala, but going to Ecuador in 2022 with Misión Claridad marked the first time he had visited another country for a service project.

“It was a chance to experience another culture and work with local people in need,” he says. “We were able to work with local Rotarians and other volunteers.”

During that first year, the team consisted of one optometrist, and Norm and Marg McCuaig-Boyd, who stepped in at the last minute to replace another volunteer who cancelled due to illness.

“As a Rotarian, participating in an international project was something I always wanted to do,” Marg says. “When someone had to drop out, I offered to go.”

Initially, the plan was for Marg to be responsible for administrative tasks, but requirements changed. “I found myself doing something I was trained to do.”

After receiving some last-minute training, Marg conducted preliminary eye tests before patients were seen by an optometrist.

A challenge for Marg is that she didn’t speak Spanish, but Norm says, “She got very good at doing it in Spanish.”

“We didn’t get the translator we expected,” says Marg, who had vacationed in Mexico but found the situation different in Ecuador.

“When we go to Mexico, there always seems to be someone who speaks English. That’s not always the case in Ecuador,” she says.

With a bit of rudimentary Spanish and lots of gestures, she found she was able to communicate with the patients. “My charades game got pretty good.”

Since returning from that first trip, Marg continues to attend Spanish classes in anticipation of future missions to Ecuador.

“I went again last year and will be going again this fall,” she says. “I will continue to go as long as I am not too old.”

For Marg, the rewards are in developing friendships with other Rotarians and in the work itself. “Like all Rotary work, it makes you feel good to feel you are making a difference.”

The team conducted eye exams and prescribed glasses when needed, but also did something that will help reduce the need for cataract surgeries in the future. Every patient received sunglasses.

“Because of the altitude, the population is very susceptible to ultraviolet rays,” Norm says. “We don’t want to come back in a few years to perform cataract surgeries for them.”

When the team returned to Canada, “the work really began,” Norm says. Staff at the Optometrists’ Clinic had to prepare the glasses, using lenses cut and donated by Zeiss Canada and frames donated by suppliers.

Without those donations of supplies and services, the total cost of the 241 pairs of glasses Paul took to Ecuador would have been more than $80,000.

Need for equipment identified

Paul describes the goal of Misión Claridad as increasing the cataract surgeries done in Cuenca’s public hospitals by local medical teams. Doctors working in the public hospitals are qualified to do the procedures but have neither the equipment nor supplies they need.

“This became an equipment project and not a surgery project,” Paul says. “The hospital promised that they would do the surgeries if they had the equipment, but they had no budget for supplies.”

As a result of a campaign led by Paul, money was raised to purchase supplies and ship them, as well as a used microscope donated by an Edmonton ophthalmologist, to Cuenca. That type of microscope costs $85,000 when new.

The funds raised included those from the Riverview Rotary Club, from Rotary District 5370 and a global grant from The Rotary Foundation, which is funded by donations from Rotarians worldwide.

TRF funds projects that relate to one or more of Rotary International’s seven areas of focus, including disease prevention and treatment. The Rotary Club of Tomebamba came aboard as the local host club, as is required by TRF for all global grants.

An additional $25,000 in donations came from Rotary clubs in District 5370 (which includes clubs in northern Alberta, northeastern BC, northwest Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Yukon), in District 5360 (southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan) and in British Columbia.

Doctors in Ecuador have not yet started to use the donated equipment but Paul expects that they will have begun to do some surgeries by October when the next Misión Claridad arrives in Cuenca.

“As they are getting closer to that goal, they are discovering there are other items they need,” he says. “Because they have never done these surgeries, they have never purchased these items before. We have been able to connect them to suppliers.”

As a carrot to encourage the doctors to take the next step, they have been told, “If you begin to use the equipment, we will get you more equipment.”

Paul hopes that one public hospital will become the centre for cataract surgeries, with several doctors who are able to provide the procedure supported by trained nurses and access to supplies.

When the team returns in October 2024, the Canadians will be at a public hospital about 45 minutes outside Cuenca, where they will collaborate with local doctors and train them to do more surgeries.

“It’s better for us to provide equipment that they can use every day of the week than limiting surgeries to the one week when our team visits the country,” Paul says.

When this happens, the legacy of Misión Claridad will be to have made a sustainable improvement for the disadvantaged population in this part of Ecuador—the “lasting change” envisioned in the vision statement of Rotary International.