Seeing is believing, and one local optometrist is trying his darndest to make believers out of a country full of people who previously had little to believe in.
Montana native, Hillsboro resident and Pacific University alumnus Scott Pike is that man. For nearly 23 years, the eye doctor, who spent the previous two decades studying and practicing up and down the West Coast, has been helping people in the Ixcán region of Guatemala with eyewear, testing and procedures to improve their vision. He says he is educating and equipping local residents via charitable contributions.
Pike, a 1970 graduate of Pacific's School of Optometry, first traveled to Guatemala in the late 1990s. While there with a friend who was doing humanitarian work, he met a man by the name of Pedro, who was doing rudimentary medical work in surrounding villages. Pedro, despite a fondness for the work, said he was going to quit his position, primarily due to an inability to read medicinal reading instructions.
At 44 years of age, Pike thought it sad and egregious that such a decision were being made despite such a simple solution, so it was at that time that he thought to see what he could do as a means of rectifying the problem.
"I thought, this is silly," Pike said. "I mean the man is going to quit doing what he likes to do, and it's something that's been very helpful to his community, just because he doesn't have access to reading glasses?"
That was the beginning of what has become a two-decade journey for the doctor, who now finds himself surprised by what ultimately became his passion.
"Had I known at the time how much time and effort it was going to be, I probably would have said no," Pike said with a chuckle. "But it very slowly became a passion, and the interest grew within me."
The Ixcán region has a population of more than 100,000, comparable to that of Hillsboro. But the nearest eye care facility, according to Pike, is a three- to four-hour drive away.
Pike's facility, Enfoque Ixcán, offers local residents basic eye care training for its Eye Health Promoters, who then provide services such as vision exams, school screenings and necessary eyewear.
"It's not necessarily what you might expect to get here," Pike said, comparing the experience in rural Guatemala to the United States. "But it allows the help you need, and the information and access to more advanced procedures if you need them."
Although Guatemala is not a large country — it's a little smaller than Louisiana, by land area — Ixcán is relatively remote. Pike said after flying into Guatemala City, it's anywhere from an eight- to 12-hour drive, depending on whether you're taking private or public transportation.
So there's nothing easy about the endeavor, but the doctor said he's definitely seen the fruits of he and his group's efforts over the years.
"The first time I went down there, which was for a week, I saw a total of two pairs of eyeglasses," he said. "But now they're everywhere."
Pike said his group alone has examined more than 20,000 people, distributed more than 9,200 pairs of glasses, funded over 800 eye surgeries, and supplied basic needs such as eyedrops. He also said it's not just that the local people are getting the help, but that they know help is out there — which the doctor said wasn't always the case.
"They used to think that when you got old, you got blind, and that's just the way it worked," Pike said. "So getting them to understand that didn't have to be the case, and getting them to take the next step, which could be surgery, was a big deal."
The doctor said in the early years they'd have maybe 10 people per year to agree to surgery, but now they take groups of 20 to 30, which has shown a much different mindset.
"It's really been a change for the better," Pike said.
Their current facility is tiny — just 10 feet by 10 feet, Pike said. But with the money they've raised over the years, they're currently working on the first of a three-phase construction project to build a 1,330-square-foot facility.
The bulk of the money comes via donations from friends, local and international Rotaries, and activities such as the annual Quetzal Run. This year, as a result of the pandemic, the in-person, all-together run and dinner afterward isn't happening, but organizers are going to conduct the rest virtually, so one can pick their distance and donation.
Money isn't the only donation to the cause, for aside from Pike's time, he also takes a delegation of Pacific University's optometry students, a group called AMIGOS Eye Care, with him to Guatemala every August to help him with his endeavor.
"They've gone with me for 17 years," he noted.
Despite the university help, Pike said one of Enfoque Ixcán's aims is to lean heavily on locals, who through the project are trained to provide the necessary care.
"One of our goals is to use local resources as much as possible," Pike said. "That's the reason for training local people. Carlos and Felipe staff our office five days a week, year around, and all surgeries are done by Guatemalan doctors."
In addition to continuing care in Ixcán, Pike hopes to find someone who can take the reins from the 74-year-old doctor from Montana.
"I'm almost 75, so I don't know how many more trips I can make," Pike said. "But I'm making sure we have some way of moving this forward without me."
If you'd like to learn more about Enfoque Ixcán or the virtual Quetzal Run, or donate to the cause, you can check out the clinic's website at enfoqueixcan.org.
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