2010-02-18 / Front Page

Island doctor spearheads volunteer medical clinic in El Salvador

By Iain Wilson

Each year, Doctor Joe England of Jamestown Family Practice takes one week off in January.

But it’s not so he can sleep late and sip cocktails at a destination resort.

England spends his week volunteering in a country that can use his help. This year, he spent a week in El Salvador, a Central American nation that neighbors Honduras and Guatemala. There, he – along with a group of approximately 50 volunteers – conducted a four-day clinic in El Salvador’s lower Baha Lempa region.

The clinic provides basic medical services, but also hands out eyeglasses, performs cataract surgery and offers Pap smears to villagers in this fertile river basin.

“It’s a very, very busy four days,” England said of the week’s hectic pace.

This year, he and other volunteers treated 2,600 patients, splitting care about evenly between medical attention and vision needs.

Cataracts, generally less common in the U.S., are quite common in El Salvador. By removing them through eye surgery, volunteers literally gave sight to the blind. This year’s trip was the first in El Salvador to offer these valuable eye procedures.

Jamestown’s ties to these volunteering trips run deep.

“The guy who really started all of this is an optometrist who goes by the name of Carl Sakovits,” England said of the Jamestown resident who originally lobbied him to join the group.

Sakovits, who practices in Bristol, joined the group while at optometry school at the State University of New York. More than a dozen of the 50 volunteers either live in Jamestown or have direct island ties – Sakovits recruited England, and the two have been scouting ever since.

“We managed to get a lot of local people to start getting involved with this,” England said.

Two organizations made this trip possible, he said.

England is part of a group called Northeast Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, which organizes the trip. The Northeast branch is part of the national VOSH network, an organization that has sent physicians and optometrists to Central America every year since 1988. According to the group’s website, its aim is to provide “vision care to people around the world who cannot afford or obtain it.”

Last year marked the group’s first trip to El Salvador, after years of work in Nicaragua, a Central American nation that sits south of El Salvador.

The second group, Voices on the Border, is an American-based non-profit that works to promote just and equitable development in El Salvador. This group handles some diplomatic issues and paperwork, while helping to identify the more pressing medical problems that locals face.

Volunteers in El Salvador are stationed in Nueva Esperana, a name that translates to “new hope.” Most citizens in the region are refugees; many were displaced when war erupted during the 1980s.

As there are no four-lane highways, the commute – made via cattle truck – lasted only 10 minutes and left around 7:15 every morning. But the sheer volume of patients proved to be a difficulty, England said.

“After four days, we’re running out of stuff,” he said.

Materials for the trip, including all eyeglasses and medications, were provided entirely by the volunteers. England estimated the cost to be $15,000.

Though no credentials are required to work as a clinic volunteer, many of the names on the attendee list include medical titles. All of the work is done free of charge, and volunteers pick up their own travel costs as well.

Far from posh, accommodations for the group include cinderblock guesthouses at a nearby convent.

Recent Salvadoran medical school graduates are required to serve communities outside of the nation’s capital, San Salvador, for one year. At the time of England’s arrival, the communities were waiting for these new medical school graduates to arrive, he said.

“When we’re there, we’re kind of putting our fingers in the dike,” he said.

In a poor third-world country like El Salvador, distribution and availability are the two largest constraints on effective healthcare, England said.

There are clinics and there are doctors, he added, but generally, “They really don’t have much to work with.”

Looking forward, England mentioned his intention to develop a system for diabetes management, something he said the area sorely lacks. He also said that most people who require major medical attention get it, but “it’s the day to day stuff that kind of gets lost.”

A planning meeting for the 2011 trip will likely happen as soon as next week, England said, adding that there is much to be done for the upcoming trip.

“We’re trying to develop a longer term relationship that can have longer-term effects,” he said.

It’s a prospect about which he’s optimistic.

“Our contacts down there are very good, and our mechanisms for working through government red tape are working well, which is a big issue,” he said.

During his years as a volunteer, England’s role has shifted from participant to something more closely resembling a manager, he said.

He chuckles as he explains his new perspective on the trip.

“Your idea of a successful trip is nobody got injured, we got through the government glitches, we didn’t have any major loss of equipment,” he said. “Your view begins to change.”

And the group, after days of tireless work and thousands of patients, used the last day to take a more traditional approach to winter travels to warm locations.

They took a day to go to the beach, England said.

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