Local doctor embarks on mission of mercy and vision

Dr. Christina Smith treats 1,100 people in Trinidad and Tobago with the help of the Black Mountain Rotary Club

Fred McCormick

On any given day Dr. Christina Smith’s office in the Lackey Creek Health Center sees a steady flow of patients.

In January the optometrist teamed up with Rotary Club and the Volunteer Optometrics Services to Humanity/InternationaI for a mission trip to Trinidad and Tobago. She was confronted with a wave of people desperate for her services.

The four-day trip to the Caribbean nation wasn’t the first mission trip for Smith, who went to Grenada in 2014 with 14 others, including her office manager Rachel Huehls and her son Sean German.

Huehls and German joined Smith as part of a smaller group for the trip to Trinidad and Tobago.

The state chapter of Volunteer Optometrics Services to Humanity/InternationaI  organized the trip to Penal, Trinidad, a town on the island’s southern coast. Smith and her group took 3,000 pairs of prescription glasses to a growing town of about 12,000 people.

The glasses came from the Lions Club International’s Recycle For Sight program. The program collects prescription glasses no longer being used to distribute them to people in need.

“When someone does an overseas trip like this, they request however many prescriptions in the ranges they need,” Smith told the Black Mountain Rotary Club at its March 14 lunch at Highland Farms. “What we have to pay is the shipping fees, which the Rotary Club helped us with, so thank you very much.”

Dr. Christina Smith thanks the Black Mountain Rotary Club for helping with the shipment of 3,000 prescription glasses for a mission trip to Trinidad and Tobago.

Smith presented slides from her trip. Trinidad has more 1.3 million people, and her team's goal was was to see 300 people per day. "We ended up seeing just over 1,100 during the four days we were there,” she said.

Smith was joined on the trip by Huehls, who also assisted with the Rotary Club presentation. Their group's arrival was advertised by the Penal chapter of the Rotary Club, which also helped facilitate transportation and clinic locations. The group created banners and even announced it in the streets via megaphone, according to Smith.

She and her crew set up four clinics in various locations around the city.

"They tried to make children the first priority," she said. "The children that arrived before the cut-off time were always given first priority over adults. But we did see a lot of adults as well."

A group of people gather in a Muslim community center in Trinidad and Tobago waiting to be examined by Dr. Christina Smith.

Smith and her team would load suitcases of supplies on a bus daily before heading to locations like the city's primary school, where they administered care.

"We saw mostly children that day," she said. "My job, for at least a couple hours each day, was to screen kids."

A crucial part of the trip was checking people for glaucoma, the third-leading cause of blindness in the world and a disease which people in the Caribbean are genetically predisposed to, according to Smith.

"Glaucoma is a blinding disease that has no symptoms in the early stages," Smith said. "And if it's not caught in the early stages you're likely to lose vision and potentially go blind. Once you lose vision there's no getting it back."

Rachel Huehls, the longtime office manager for Dr. Christina Smith, does an initial evaluation to help access the needs of patients waiting to see Smith in Trinidad and Tobago.

Smith gave glaucoma drops to 129 people during the trip. She also prescribed more than 700 pairs of glasses, which in many cases made astounding differences to the recipients.

"I had a woman in her 30s," Smith said, "who hadn't had glasses in a decade, and she couldn't see further than two inches in front of her face. Something as simple as getting her a pair of glasses was such a big deal."

Smith's 2014 trip to Grenada was the first mission trip in which she led a team. She returned to Grenada with her family last year as members of a trip led by someone else. The experiences helped her in January.

"We were just more comfortable going into it this time," she said motioning toward Huehls, who agreed.

"We learned a lot about the logistical aspects of the trip last time," Huehls added. "That experience helped us have a better plan this time."