Dr. Yasaira Rodriguez Performs Cataract Surgery in Santiago, DR
In the heart of Santiago, Dominican Republic, our own Dr. Yasi Rodriguez along with a team of skilled surgeons recently returned from a mission trip with the nonprofit ophthalmology group iOPEN, providing essential eye surgery to underserved communities.
Dr. Rodriguez was personally invited to join this surgical team by Dr. Xihui Lin, the organization’s founder and her former mentor; a testament to her unique combination of skill and compassion. She initially planned to travel to Santiago in 2020, but was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Undeterred, she redirected her service closer to home by supporting the COVID response in Detroit.
“There are underserved communities right here in the US, and healthcare was significantly disrupted everywhere during the pandemic. I was happy to step in and assist in Detroit for those most in need.” -Dr. Yasaira Rodriguez
About the Santiago mission, she said, “All our activities occurred in a single week, so it’s controlled chaos from the moment we land. In advance of our arrival, scouts are deployed to rural areas identifying individuals in desperate need of vision surgery. Because iOPEN is one of only two ophthalmology teams visiting the region, patients and their families travel long distances to us for the chance to see again.”
While in Santiago, Dr. Rodriguez recalls, “I operated on several patients blinded by advanced cataracts, a situation we almost never see progress to blindness in the US. My youngest patient was 25, with a cataract caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that leads to early onset blindness. The oldest was 80. These people were reliant on others for everything; walking, cooking, really unable to do anything independently any longer. After surgery, the outpouring of joy and relief was amazing. To know they can once again help their family by farming, cooking, child-rearing, it was really special to be a part of their lives.”
Misión Ilac, a Catholic mission in Santiago, served as the base for medical operations. Thanks to donations from medical device manufacturers, the mission houses a medical center, offering clinic space for eye exams as well as a sterile operating room. “One of our biggest daily challenges was the equipment”, says Dr. Rodriquez. “Microscope lights would burn out, tubing would clog, and well-functioning generators were crucial as the electrical grid is unreliable. When I returned home, our local ASC was replacing their cataract (phaco) machines, and we were able to donate two to the mission. Next year, equipment worries should be greatly reduced.”
The team completed over 100 vision-correcting procedures during their week in Santiago; over half were cataract surgeries performed by Dr. Rodriguez’s team. “I remember the day before last in Santiago walking into the classroom, where the patients were asked to sit for hours until it was their turn, to find the last patient. I had to explain to her that we could not do her surgery because we didn’t have the correct power of intraocular lens she needed. It was heartbreaking. Luckily, one of the mission scouts was able to contact a local ophthalmologist who donated the lens and the patient did her surgery the next day.” Other surgeons performed vision-saving glaucoma surgery and eyelid surgery for malformations, offering a renewed sense of hope for those who had long been in the shadows of their communities.
Reflecting on her experience, Dr. Rodriguez describes it as humbling explaining, “I forget sometimes how fortunate we are to have access to consistent, quality medical care. To take my training and experience and give back in the most personal, most human way possible, is so, so gratifying. I hope to continue mission work annually, because restoring vision truly is a gateway to restoring lives.”
To learn more about iOPEN medical missions, please visit iopensurgery.org.