MATTHEWS – Dr. Keshav Bhat knows what it’s like to live in a country without all the benefits of living in the U.S., and his own experience is a big part of what drives him to give back to others who are less fortunate.
The optometrist, who grew up in India and now heads up Austin Village Eyecare in Matthews, recently ventured back overseas in a medical mission trip to Grenada to provide eye care to individuals living in poverty.
Bhat joined six other optometrists – including one from Asheville; two from Chicago, Ill.; and three from Canada – for a nine-day trip with Volunteer Optometric Society for Humanity of North Carolina, or VOSH NC, a nonprofit dedicated to “improving visual well-being,” according to the organization’s website. VOSH NC unites eye doctors, opticians and volunteers in an effort to provide eye exams, glasses and medications to people living in impoverished areas around the world.
“Our goal is simple: eliminate preventable blindness and support access to eye care for those who cannot afford it,” the organization said on its website.
Bhat considers charity work an essential part of his role as an optometrist. He took a similar trip to Jamaica about 10 years ago and volunteers his services regularly to people in need, including children at Thompson Child and Family Focus, his practice’s flagship charity. When the opportunity to go to Grenada arose, Bhat knew it was the right choice.
“I’ve always had charity work, giving back to the community, as a central theme to the practice,” he said. “… I always wanted to give back to the community and serve even if that meant closing my office for a few days … In the big scheme of things, that’s an important thing to do.”
Bhat departed for Grenada on March 28 and returned on Saturday, April 5. Bhat and the rest of the team treated more than 1,500 patients at a health-care clinic in the mountains, providing eye examinations, consultations and prescriptions. People began lining up outside the clinic between 5 and 5:30 a.m. each morning to see the doctors. The team arrived around 8 a.m., set up their equipment and saw patients from about 9 a.m. to between 4 and 5 p.m. each day with no
The team stayed with members of a Grenadian rotary club, who helped organize the trip. Bhat said they made about a one-and-a-half-hour journey to the clinic, which overlooked the Caribbean Sea.
“It’s very, very different. The dogs will walk right past you in the clinic. The bathroom is back there in a little hole,” Bhat said. “…The view (outside the clinic) to us is beautiful, but they just live there in squalor next to the ocean.”
Bhat said the most common eye conditions seen included glaucoma, cataracts and pterygium, a condition caused by excessive ultraviolet light exposure. There also were a number of cases where people experienced vision loss due to other health conditions, such as poorly managed diabetes.
“(The trip) was about good education about health, not just vision,” Bhat said. “Not only did we provide eye care, but (also advice) on how to manage food, diets and change lifestyles.”
The team carried six cases full of eye ware including single-vision glasses, reading glasses and bifocals. The doctors were able to provide a variety of prescription strengths, thanks to donations from North Carolina Lions clubs, Bausch and Lomb and Alcon.
Bhat said his favorite part of the trip was providing glasses to the children of Grenada.
“Every time we would put a pair of eyeglasses on a child who never had access to be able to see well, I would say it was one of the most special moments in our lives,” he said. “… There were at least half a dozen occasions there that brought goose bumps to me, to see a child’s face light up when you put a pair of glasses on their nose.”
Though the team didn’t conduct surgeries during the visit, the doctors diagnosed conditions and gave referrals to patients. Bhat said a team from France is lined up to visit the center soon to provide surgical services.
Bhat hopes to venture back overseas for a similar trip sometime soon with his family – including his sons, Ananth and Vittal, ages 5 and 12. He wants to teach his children the importance of giving back, particularly to people in countries like Grenada.
“I grew up in India, but my children were born here,” Bhat said. “… In the next year, I certainly want my youngsters to see what goes on in countries like this.”