Local optometrist brings better vision to impoverished

Dr. Laura Branstetter, a local optometrist, works with a Guatemalan patient during a recent humanitarian effort designed to help the impoverished with vision health. 

Your old unused pair of glasses sitting in a desk drawer at your house could bring joy and happiness to someone who hasn’t been able to see well for a lifetime. Derby optometrist Dr. Laura Branstetter knows what that means to someone in poverty, from a recent firsthand experience.

Branstetter and three other Kansas optometrists headed to Central America in late February of this year and spent a week in Guatemala. They examined the eyes of men, women and children who have never had the opportunity to have better vision.

The trip was through a Kansas organization called Volunteer Optometric Services for Humanity, or VOSH. Their purpose is to help improve the lives of people in Central America by offering vision services in impoverished areas of the country.

The work is hard and demanding and a single VOSH optometrist may examine up to 100 people a day, averaging a patient every 10 minutes. The doctors are all volunteers and pay the majority of their own expenses.

“The people in that area are so used to not having any glasses and are forced to just get by. Even getting something that improves their vision in some way, can be life-changing,” Branstetter said.

The community of Derby stepped up months prior to the trip in a “we need your old glasses” campaign. Branstetter’s optometric office, Eye to Eye Vision Care, solicited the community for old glasses that were tested for strength, sorted and bagged. The glasses would then be matched up with a VOSH patient who needed that strength.

“The response we got for people to donate their old glasses was wonderful. If there is something that needs to happen, Derby people are on it,” Branstetter said.

She says the doctors did a general eye health check looking for everything from cataracts, lid droop and other possible eye diseases. She said sometimes it was very hard. For example, she might see a child that has a parasite in the eye and the damage is already done where nothing can be done about it.

Branstetter has made other VOSH trips in the past and she says that every time she goes it is a reality check. “It makes me so thankful for what we have here,” she said.

She says that some of the conditions the people live in can impact their eye health. People may do their cooking outside. There is a lot of pollution from burning trash. Branstetter says they see a lot of dry eye in their patients.

Branstetter got to connect with her son Chase while in Guatemala. Chase, who is in a gap year waiting to attend medical school, actually spent time in the clinic while his mother was there. Chase knows Spanish and was in a Spanish immersion program designed for gap year students. The program teaches them to learn accents and how to work with people when communicating with them.

Branstetter says there isn’t a lot of time to go sightseeing or anything while on a VOSH trip. The goal is to help as many people as they can with their vision in the short time they are there. She says that is just fine with her.