Coeur d'Alene doctor provides vision saving services in Central America | Business
Cataracts and strabismus are eye diseases that are easily treated here in the U.S., but in Central America these conditions can cause blindness and make daily life an extreme challenge. For 20 years, Dr. Justin StormoGipson has been leading teams of surgeons, nurses, and other specialists to bring sight to patients whose worlds would otherwise be dark.
An Ophthalmologist at the North Idaho Eye Institute in Coeur d’Alene, Dr. StormoGipson has lead 29 trips in the last 20 years to Guatemala, Mexico and most recently Honduras. He returned the day after Valentine’s Day from Honduras, where the team performed 46 surgeries in just four days.
“We mostly go to places that are underserved and don’t have access to eye care,” said StormoGipson. He and his late wife, Dr. Maj StormoGipson, moved to Nicaragua after completing their residencies. After a couple of years working there, the couple returned to the U.S. Justin specialized in ophthalmology and Maj specialized in pediatrics.
Together, they started a non-profit, International Eye Institute Inc., to fund trips to serve those in Central America struggling with treatable eye conditions.
“If you bring the surgery to them you’re bringing them a service they wouldn’t otherwise get,” said Mary Sibulsky, a RN and Team Coordinator for the International Eye Institute. Sibulsky has been on almost 20 trips herself.
Most of the surgeries they perform are to remove cataracts that have blinded many of their patients. Sibulsky and StormoGipson explained that while there are some services to treat these eye conditions they can cost up to a year’s income for rural residents. In Guatemala surgery requires travel to places like Guatemala City, which can be difficult to get to and take days of travel. By bringing services and surgery into rural areas the teams from the International Eye Institute provide vision to the blind.
“It’s pretty miraculous,” said Sibulsky, who describes post op appointments as a “total tear fest”.
On one trip they met a woman who had been blinded by cataracts for seven years. Her son spent his days acting as her caretaker. When they removed the bandages she exclaimed that she could finally see her son, followed by a comment about old he had gotten. Not only did the cataract surgery provide her with sight, it made her self sufficient again and lifted the burden of caring for her from her son.
“Those experiences happen all the time,” said StormoGipson.
StormoGipson said the majority of the cases are very treatable, but the patients have just never had access before. The teams pack in all the equipment and supplies that are needed to small rural hospitals that team up with them for a week of clinics and life changing surgeries.
“Working in a third world country there’s a lot of different challenges,” said StormoGipson. He adds that it takes a special kind of person to take on those glitches and serve the people of Central America. Despite that, StormoGipson has three more trips to Guatemala planned for later this year.
“It really makes a difference in how you are when you come back,” said StormoGipson. He said his two dozen trips have not only made him appreciate the ease of life in a first world country, but have also made him a better doctor and surgeon.
“It’s a complicated, more difficult surgery,” he said of the work he does in Central America. While even Americans in the most dire of circumstances typically have access to some sort of support, the people of Guatemala and Honduras are so poor, so rural, that many of their health problems are caused by a complete lack of access to care.
With nearly 30 trips under his belt, StormoGipson has no intentions of slowing down his work in Central America. With more doctors and other medical staff on board for trips, the project is only growing. In the future, he’d like to add trips to Peru, but for now the teams are focused on the upcoming trips to Guatemala and the lives there that will be changed by the gift of sight.
For more information on the work being done by Dr. StormoGipson and the rest of the International Eye Institute visit their website, www.eyegive.org