MUSC eye doc gives gift of sight to Guatemalan children

By Dean Stephens

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - The smile. That's all to be seen on the faces of a group of Guatemalan children.

Some are opening their eyes to sight for the first time in their lives. Others are, for the first time, looking into a mirror and their eyes are looking straight back at them.

It can only be described with one world: smile - the ear-to-ear variety.

It's all about the smiles.

Dr. Ed Wilson and his small team from the Medical University of South Carolina's Storm Eye Institute have spread these lifelong perm-a-grins every year for the past 12 in a Guatemalan hospital.

"I just feel like I'm doing something worthwhile. I know the kids we operate on will have a normal life, will have their own family, provide for their family, be a citizen, can hope and dream like the rest of us," said Wilson.

It is a country emblazoned in color from the buildings and the clothing to the setting of the sun. Those colors though are lost on those suffering with pediatric cataracts.

"There are a lot of those kids who are completely blind, completely white pupils who look remarkable the next day," said Wilson.

The kids come from hundreds of miles away to a site in Antigua to regain theirs.

For many of the families, the car ride to the hospital can last up to 10 hours. Resources are difficult to come by in the small villages in the highlands. Money is scarce.

But the John Cheatham Foundation ensures money is no obstacle in their fight against blindness. They foot the bill making sure these families with very little spend nothing.

The foundation operated in the adult world since 1992, but found in its work around the world a need for pediatric care. That's when Dr. John Cheatham reached out to Wilson.

It took very little to convince Wilson to share his medical expertise and his{} surgical gifts to those less fortunate.

Not only does Wilson take suitcases full of supplies with him, but also two fellows, doctors who are in specialty training.{} The one-week trip opens their eyes as well, exposing them to service work and the need of giving back to the least of these.

"This project breaks my general rule in that we at Storm Eye get involved in teach the teachers in capacity building and not doing it ourselves but teaching others so they can do it themselves. This is a little bit in that it breaks the rule that we are providing the service, but I'm sending out two trainees every year who have a different perspective," said Wilson.

In five days, Wilson and his team will perform 60 operations.{}

"It feels good to be able to in one intervention, have some hope that the results are going to last. It's not like, 'Here's some free medicine and in six months you run out and you'll be back where you were before.' We're lucky in ophthalmology that some of the things we do in one intervention can continue to have a lasting effect for a lifetime," he said.

Two operating tables run simultaneous. One is used for cataract patients, the other for kids whose eyes are misaligned.

"It doesn't cause blindness, but without surgery, as these kids get older and go into adulthood, they can't get a spouse, a job, they don't have self confidence. The social implications of having straight eyes from what we see and it's not subtle, they are ostracized. We can make them normal, that's the kind of reconstruction that lasts a lifetime," said Wilson.

Their worlds are miles apart - 1,417 to be exact. But in just one week, Wilson brings together Charleston and Guatemala and that distance is connected by smiles and smiles and smiles.

Wilson traveled to Guatemala Jan. 13.