University of Iowa glaucoma specialist Dr. Dan Bettis recently traveled with a medical team to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti where he provided eye care and performed sight-saving surgeries. The team, comprised of experts from across the U.S., is committed to building training programs and improving patient care in this underdeveloped country.
The Republic of Haiti has an estimated population of 10.6 million people and is regarded as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. There are just 60 ophthalmologists in the country and only 20 of those have sufficient training to be able to conduct sight-saving surgeries, so the need for more skilled eye care is great.
For Bettis, this is his second trip to Haiti and Vision Plus Clinic, the local ophthalmology practice on the north coast of the island country. Months of preparations and planning go into each trip. While there, he focuses on transferring surgical skills and enriching the educational experience for ophthalmology residents training in the country.
“The days begin early, with seeing the prior day’s surgical patients and screening that day’s candidates. The waiting room is packed and the cases are complex. Since access to care is so difficult, people often put off going to the doctor until their second eye vision is so bad they cannot function – meaning that the other eye is legally blind as well. This means that restoring or preserving vision in one eye can literally be a matter of life or death.”
While the environment in Haiti differs from the clinical setting where Bettis normally works, his desire to preserve and restore sight remains a clear priority. “We make tough decisions, like ‘Who needs surgery the most?’ or ‘Is there a way we can do this with the supplies we have?’ Improvisation is key, and learning to ‘make do’ in this environment has made me better appreciate what we have in the US. I feel it also expands my skill set and makes me a better clinician and surgeon to my American patients.”
In the long term, Bettis and his team seek to create self-sufficient training programs where graduates agree to stay on as temporary faculty for training future ophthalmologists.
“It is exciting to imagine a day when they tell me that I don’t need to come any more and that they are ready to continue training local Haitian ophthalmologists on their own. In the meantime, I’ve committed to visit once a year.”