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USC’s volunteer clinic in Calexico is sight for sore eyes

by Paul Dingsdale

For most Americans who develop cataracts or other kinds of eye diseases, there are plenty of treatment options available. But that is not the case south of the border, where thousands of people lose their sight and can’t afford treatment. Some of them come to USC’s Calexico Eye Clinic in search of a miracle.

Calexico is a small California town, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Nestled next to the border crossing is the Valley Orthopaedic Clinic. Once a month, a remarkable act of charity takes place: the Calexico Eye Clinic.

Everyone is a volunteer. Doctors and residents from Doheny, the School of Medicine and Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center all donate their time to care for some of the most unusual and needy patients with a range of medical and surgical eye problems.

“The Calexico Eye Clinic is a truly remarkable program that brings together hospital staff, numerous volunteers, residents and faculty physicians in an important humanitarian cause. Patients are grateful for the chance to regain their sight and physicians and other volunteers are grateful for the opportunity to participate in this experience,” said Ronald E. Smith, professor and chair, Department of Ophthamology.

In Mexico, the local media do their part to spread the word.

Radio stations donate airtime to promote upcoming Calexico Eye Clinics, and many patients arrive the night before the clinic to queue up at the border. Many travel days – even weeks – to be there on time to receive the treasured one day pass that allows them to cross the border and receive free eye treatment.

Due to Mexico’s well-documented economic hardships, many of the clinic’s patients wouldn’t otherwise receive any treatment for their eye problems.

The clinic is always packed, and the medical team works at a rapid pace to see as many patients as possible during the day. Each patient is given a screening exam and a tentative diagnosis. If a patient requires further evaluation or surgery, they are bused the 500 miles up to Los Angeles.

“The Calexico Eye Clinic is a way of reaching out to some people who have significant needs and – for what is after all a relatively small expense – we can effect a major change in someone’s lifestyle,” said Debbie Diaz at Queen of Angels. Diaz, overall coordinator of the Calexico Program, said that in many cases, the treatment turns needy dependents into self-sufficient citizens who can live a normal-sighted life . . . something most of us take for granted.”

Here at USC there are many unsung heroes whose tireless efforts make the Calexico program work. Bernice Z. Brown, a member of the voluntary faculty in the Department of Ophthamology, has been the key physician involved in supervising this effort. “The program inculcates a sense of giving and charity work that young doctors need to learn these days,” said Brown.

Alfredo Sadun, the program director for the ophthalmology residency program, offered a similar sentiment. “This Calexico rotation has great value to our residency training program – not so much for what it teaches medically or in surgical experience, but more for the ethical training it provides,” he said. “The residents are reminded of why they became physicians.”

Sadun was also quick to praise the individuals who make the Calexico program work. “Dr. Brown and the residents from USC/Doheny are heroes as they go to the border to provide indigent Latin Americans with their last hope for regaining eyesight,” he said. “And Debbie Diaz is an even greater hero as she regularly gives of herself to this program – even to the extent of housing the patients in her own home while they are in L.A. for the eye surgery.”

And Brown had special words of thanks of her own for the man who started it all back in the 1970s – USC physician Robert Nichols. “He’s a remarkable man, who is still very much part of the program. If the bus breaks down – he pays to get it fixed. And every summer he has some of the kids from the program at his ranch in Arizona for summer camp.”

The problem – when is it not? – is money.

All of the staff, transportation personnel, doctors and residents are volunteers. The medicines and materials are donated. “We have got individuals – a number of private practice physicians – who donate money. And patients who make donations where they can,” said Diaz.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that this is a worthwhile program,” said Brown. “Tenet has been wonderful with their support of the program. But even though everything is donated that can possibly be donated, there are still costs for the program . . . such as flying the airplane down, paying the hospital the bare bones cost of operation and various other assorted expenses. We are constantly trying to bring together more funds. Donations from individuals are really helpful.”

USC’s volunteer clinic in Calexico is sight for sore eyes

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