Craig Blackwell, MD
Ophthalmology

Santa Cruz, CA
Diplomate: American Board of Ophthalmology
Fellow: American Academy of Ophthalmology

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An Ophthalmology Practice in Santa Cruz, CA

Guatemala Clinic Intro Part Three

April 22nd, 2008

Nice new road entering Santo Tomas.

Santo Tomas, La Reunion, altitude 2700 feet, is located on the other side of the volcanic slopes from picturesque Lake Atitlan. You can’t get to the lake from here because of the mountains. Just before crossing the bridge into town is Clinica Maxena. It was established here in 1966 as a mission site because electricity stopped here; there was initially no paved road. Supported by the diocese of Helena, Montana, a priest was stationed here and a small house was built, followed later by more building including a small general clinic. A Guatemalan doctor is paid to staff it part time the rest of the year. Extra financial support came from private donations and later Scandanavian governments and the European Union. One thing that was sorely needed, but not available, was eye care. Guatemalan doctors mostly stay in the cities where they will be paid for their services and government programs, for whatever reason, don’t reach rural areas.

At Sr. Mary’s invitation Dr.’s McKenzie and Singer, and another ophthalmologist from Montana, Joe Kupko, decided to establish an eye facility here. The building was available, but they needed equipment for a clinic and a surgery. In the clinic, specialized eye microscopes and other diagnostic equipment are needed to examine people’s eyes, screening for problems that can be treated medically, like trachoma, problems that require surgery, like cataract, and problems that are unfortunately beyond help. Then a surgery suite requires an operating microscope and instruments. Clinic and operating equipment has been accumulated by donation or purchase in bits and pieces over time. For instance, Santa Cruz Rotary generously donated the operating microscope.

All the disposable supplies must be brought along each trip. We try and plan ahead of time about what medications we will likely need, but something unexpected always shows up that challenges us to improvise.

Operating packs, lens implants, sutures and anesthetic agents must all be packed and brought along. There are no spare parts, so simplicity and improvisation are the orders of the day.

Pharmaceutical maker, Alcon, has been generous in donating medications.

After years of doing this trip the routine is fairly well set. Arrive at Santo Tomas on Saturday afternoon, get assigned to our rooms, unpack boxes and set up the clinic and operating room.

Sunday is market day in the town, which because of the newly paved road, is becoming busier and busier. Our group heads into the market for the adventure and to procure food supplies for the week. To say that we stand out is an understatement, a line of seven or eight oddly dressed strangers, a head taller than everyone else. Stalls are crowded into narrow streets leaving barely room to pass.

Entering Sunday market. Can you spot the visitors? Note the couple in front in typical dress; the seated woman in an embroidered blouse and wool skirt, and the standing man with the colorful shirt and wool skirt.