Dr. Larry Nierman has worked for more than 40 years as an optometrist, including the last 30 in Buffalo Grove. But a trip to Nicaragua last month with a branch of Doctors Without Borders opened his eyes to the real power of sight.
"My father was an optometrist, and going on a medical mission was always something I wanted to do," says Nierman. "Once I sold my private practice, I finally had the time to do it."
As part of his family practice, which now is part of Rosen Eye Care, Nierman sees children through adults and senior citizens. Routine eye care, he says, is something most people in this country take for granted.
In Nicaragua, he figures there are few eye doctors and only three eye surgeons in the entire country. Consequently, vision care is rare.
Nierman served as a clinic doctor with a chapter of VOSH International, or Volunteering Optometric Services to Humanity. The nonprofit organization provides eye care, surgery and vision care, including prescription glasses and drugs, to indigent people around the world.
He traveled with the group to San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua, which is a fishing village located about three hours from the capital city of Managua.
"I speak fluent Spanish and I've always loved Latin America," Nierman says. "The people are just so wonderful, so appreciative."
Even before they arrived, 10,000 pairs of eyeglasses and more than 4,000 pairs of sunglasses and reading glasses -- all collected by Lions Clubs around the country -- had been delivered to their makeshift clinic, which operated during the second week of January.
Nierman was part of a group that included eight doctors, more than 40 interns from optometry schools, and 20 people who helped staff the clinic.
Volunteer Gary Goldstein of Buffalo Grove, a retired friend of Nierman's, served as a pre-tester, screening patients before they were examined.
They set up shop in an elementary school that was on break. Nierman says the school had barred windows, no electricity and was very dusty. The desks looked like they were nearly 100 years old, he added.
Inside the school, the group set up eight clinics, a dispensary to hold the donated glasses and a lunchroom. Nierman was assigned to direct Clinic No. 8. He led a staff of six interns and two local helpers to manage the patient load.
He certainly needed the help. By 8 a.m. each morning, there were 50 people waiting to be seen. That one week alone, his clinic saw around 800 people, Nierman says, and the total for the mission was 4,400.
School buses headed into the mountains every day to transport patients from the barrios, or neighborhoods of corrugated tin shacks with dirt floors, Nierman explains.
"The further they went out into the mountains," he adds, "the poorer the people were."
Their cases were compelling. Most people could be fitted with eyeglasses, but they also were diagnosed and treated for diseases like glaucoma, conjunctivitis, and dry eye, receiving a year's supply of drops, which had been donated by pharmaceutical companies
Nierman particularly remembers one elderly woman whose one wish was to be able to see to thread her needle.
An 8-year-old girl's nearsightedness was so severe she had never gone to school. Nierman was able to determine her prescription and fit her with glasses. Her mother was so emotional, she hugged him.
"There is nothing more rewarding then seeing an 8-year-old child see for the first time," Nierman says. "It makes my 40-year career worth it."