Passport? Check. Immunizations? Check. Malaria drugs? Check. Just another day at the office of Lyons Family Eye Care, 3250 N. Lincoln Ave.
On February 8, optometrist Stephanie Lyons, husband John, and their entire staff will board a plane to Tela, Honduras, as part of a mission by VOSH International to deliver vision services to people who otherwise lack access to eye care.
With Stephanie having participated in previous missions to Honduras in 2008 and El Salvador in 2010, she and John were looking for a volunteer opportunity as a way to give back after the successful opening of LFEC in 2011. “For us, it’s been an incredible year,” says John. “People have been so supportive of what we’re doing.”
They contacted VOSH three weeks ago about upcoming missions and were surprised by the response. “They said, ‘We’re leaving in four weeks,’” Stephanie recounts.
“At first we were like, no, we’ll go next year,” says John, who runs the business side of LFEC. “We slept on it and said, ‘We should go.’ In an ideal world world, we would have planned six months ahead, but we had to go. It’s the right thing to do.” The willingness of their employees to jump on board “is a testament to how awesome our staff is,” he adds.
In Honduras, the team from Lyons will join a larger group of optometrists and volunteers, setting up a clinic that will run for five consecutive days. “We’ll see thousands of people a day,” says Stephanie, many of whom have gone 40 or 50 years with uncorrected vision. “Usually eye care just doesn’t exist or they can’t afford it.” A huge part of the appeal for both Lyons: the joy of fitting people with their first pair of glasses, multiplied hundreds of times over. “It changes your life the instant you put a pair of glasses on them,” says Stephanie.
She recalls one particularly moving case from her trip to El Salvador. “There was this little boy, probably six years old. His mom said he was deaf. I was checking his prescription and it was really high. He had no verbal skills, so they didn’t even know he wasn’t seeing.” As Lyons was packing up at the end of the day, the mother approached to say her son hadn’t received any glasses. “We got him a pair. Finally he had a little sensory input. That was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
On the upcoming mission, while Stephanie conducts eye exams, John will assist with pre-testing and help choose eyeglasses for patients. The glasses are donated, collected by organizations such as the Lions Club and at the Lyons office as well. “We’ll go into the boxes and find the closest prescription,” says John. “Ideally we’ll find a pair that fits to some extent.”
Higher prescriptions, which are less common, are harder to come by among the donated specs. “For extreme cases, we will make a pair when we come back and send them,” says Stephanie, who has extremely poor vision herself. “I have a really high prescription. That’s why I always wanted to be an optometrist–I deal with it every day.”
The group will also hand out sunglasses to as many people as possible, especially children, to help guard against cataracts, the incidence of which increases with sun exposure. An ophthalmologist will participate in the Honduras mission to perform cataract surgeries as necessary.
Leah Anderson, an optician at Lyons, has joined similar missions to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica in the past. “They’re great experiences,” she says, “just seeing people appreciate the care.” For many, a visit to the eye care clinic is their first ever contact with a doctor. “They just want to be seen,” says Anderson, “even for a stomachache. Everybody got a Tums.”
In the U.S., where eye care is readily available, Stephanie Lyons notes that public education regarding eye health is often lacking. “We’re not just checking to see if you need glasses,” she says. Eye doctors have the ability to look at a patient’s blood vessels in great detail, which enables them to detect issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. “Whatever’s going on in your body,” she says, “you see in the eyes.”
In founding LFEC, Stephanie and John opted to bring a small-town approach to a big city optical shop, carving out a niche between discounters and high-end boutiques. The couple, who walk the 250 yards to work every day, have placed a particular emphasis on pediatric care and vision therapy, which aims to correct conditions such as lazy eye and eye-turn (aka, cross-eyes). “We’re one of maybe two practices in the city doing that,” says Stephanie. “A lot of kids have a really hard time in school with reading, they get far behind.” Some students wind up being labeled learning disabled, when in fact they simply can’t focus their eyes.
“At the end [of the therapy], parents are in tears. ‘My kid just read their first book.’ We’re in tears too,” Stephanie says.
About that packing list for Honduras–Kleenex? Check.
You can help: Lyons Family Eye Care is responsible for all costs of their trip to Honduras, including airfare, food and lodging for their entire staff. If you’d like to make a donation, they’ve set up a website to accept contributions. Lyons gladly takes donations of eyeglasses year round.