Dr. Kozarsky and his team
Dressed in surgical scrubs in a Honduran hospital room, Detroit-based Captain Carlos Enriquez watched the elderly woman open her eyes, blinking to adjust to her newfound sight.
“At first we thought the surgery failed,” Carlos said. “She was looking to the side and the doctor kept asking her to look straight at the eye chart on the wall.”
Carlos, a team of volunteers and a PBS documentary film crew watched as the 71-year-old turned to the surgeon and said, “Doctor, please give me a second. I am looking at my beautiful daughter and I have not seen her in a long time.”
“At that moment, we realized the surgery was a success. It was one of those moments that stayed with me.”
In March, Carlos volunteered for the ECHO Foundation (Eradicating Cataracts Honduras Outreach), a non-profit established in 2008 by Dr. Alan Kozarsky and Kyle Coffey. The organization’s mission is to provide cataract surgery brigades to restore sight to hundreds of poor Hondurans who otherwise would not have access to the surgery.
“Dr. Kozarsky is my air medical examiner and he’d mention ECHO from time to time. But I never gave it much thought until after my trip to Honduras for the Army.”
A U.S. Army soldier specializing in combat arms, Carlos was sent to train Honduran forces a year ago. When he returned home, he chatted with Dr. Kozarsky about the experience and ECHO came up during their conversation.
“I told him ‘next time you go, take me with you.’”
Volunteering his vacation time, Carlos flew from Atlanta to San Pedro Sula, Honduras and spent a week assisting the surgeries. The mission was also filmed for the upcoming PBS documentary, “Sight: The Story of Vision,” which educates viewers on the health and science of the eye. The film documents the history of sight, and the science, technology and medicine that allows people to see, as well as how to cure diseases of the eye and correct vision. A premiere date has not been announced yet.
Carlos’ previous trip to Honduras proved valuable to the logistics of the trip.
“I knew the Air Force base commander where we landed. We unloaded our supplies and went straight to the hospital. I don’t have any medical training so I thought that’s all I could help with. But the doctor was very good at putting people to work.”
He and the volunteers set up waiting areas for patients, organized the operating rooms and prepared medical supplies.
“It didn’t matter what your background was. Everyone did a little bit of everything, with the exception of actually performing the surgery.”
Carlos worked mostly in the OR with the doctors, helping to set up supplies for the surgical procedures. Fluent in Spanish, he also acted as an interpreter between doctors and patients.
One of the stories documented by the film crew was a 15-year-old patient who was blind in one eye and received a corneal transplant. As an interpreter, Carlos went with the film crew to pick up the teenager from his home and bring him to the hospital.
“San Pedro Sula is one of the biggest cities in Honduras for crime and gang activity, and his neighborhood was a little dangerous. Some of the volunteers were nervous but my military training kicked in to take inventory of what was going around us,” Carlos said.
The humanitarian mission tremendously improved the health and livelihoods of over a hundred patients, including a 21-year-old medical student now able to continue with her studies, the parents of a young woman, and a double amputee, diabetic patient who required full-time care.
“It was amazing to watch these surgeries change lives forever.”
According to the ECHO Foundation, there are at least 50,000 people in Honduras needlessly suffering blindness from cataracts. For most, eyesight is easily fixed with a 15-minute surgery and a $100 worth of resources.
Carlos didn’t realize the emotional impact the Honduras humanitarian mission would have on him personally. He plans to return every year.
“I went down there on a whim. I didn’t know what to expect, and it was incredibly rewarding. By the end of the week, there was nothing but smiles, hugs and tears of happiness.”