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Wandering Eyes Mongolia

There is an old saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. This is particularly true when talking about spectacles, as optical dispenser Carolyn Morley discovered when she went to Mongolia recently, with the ‘Wandering Eyes Project’.

Last year I decided to participate in an eye clinic in Mongolia. It’s something I’d been thinking about for a while and once I put the word out, I was amazed at the support I received. My first move was to request donations of unwanted glasses from the public. I did this through my regional newspaper and I was stunned by the response – over 400 pairs of specs came in. Many people donated multiple pairs, some from partners, husbands and wives who had passed away. Often the glasses were reasonably new and the surviving partner was delighted to know they wouldn’t be tossed out.

Single vision lenses were the most useful to us but prescription and non-prescription sunglasses were highly valuable as well. We also had a range of readymade specs ranging from 0.50 to 4.00 in both plus and minus powers. As these were the same size and shape, the lenses were interchangeable, so we could customise the spectacles (and often did).

Sponsorship flooded in too. I received very generous donations from Essilor, Rimoptics and Wodonga Eyecare, who were also the drop off point for the donated specs. I contacted my local Rotary club who were very supportive. My sister-in law had a charity morning tea at her work and raised nearly $300 for the cause. All donations were tax deductible.

We made our base in Ulan Bator and from there travelled south east to a town called Bayan Urt with stops on the way to conduct clinics

The six weeks leading to my departure date were a blur of passport photos (why do they always look like mug shots?), visa applications, vaccinations (Hep A&B, tetanus and rabies) and packing.

Welcome to Mongolia

Mongolia is the 19th largest country in the world with a population of only 2.9 million. Approximately 30 per cent live a nomadic life while 38 per cent live in the young, funky capital of Ulan Bator. At present there are just 27.7 physicians and 75.7 hospital beds per 10 000 people.

The country has short hot summers and long cold winters; it can get to -30oC overnight. Luckily our weather was warm without being oppressive. One of the most refreshing aspects of Ulan Bator is the lack of McDonalds, KFC and Burger King!

Genghis Khan (or Chingis as he is known in Mongolia) can be seen everywhere in Mongolia on everything from t-shirts to mountain carvings, vodka and massive stainless steel monuments. So too can the influence of the Soviets who took over the country in 1924 and didn’t leave until 1990. Much of the architecture is Soviet inspired, and on the outskirts of Ulan Bator, a huge Soviet memorial stands next to the most serene Buddha statue I have ever seen.

The Australian Team

My Australian team consisted of three optometrists, three dispensers, a GP, two nurses, an occupational therapist who assisted us with the initial screening, and a gentleman who was essential when it came to clinic set up and crowd control.

We made Ulan Bator our base during our two and a half week stay in Mongolia and from there travelled south east along grass tracks to a town called Bayan Urt with stops on the way to conduct clinics. To get around we relied on a local driver, three translators, a young man named Bobo, and a mother and daughter whose local knowledge was invaluable.

Our accommodation was a ger – a huge round canvas tent that, depending on its size, sleeps four to 40 people. With a stove in the middle and often a lino floor, the ger is warm and comfortable. The wooden stakes that reach to the peak of the tent are brightly painted. Several ger tents make up a ger camp, some of which have restaurants that turn out fantastic meals from local produce. The first ger camp we stayed at also offered its more adventurous guests Mongolian pony rides. I took a ride, but having experienced the wooden saddle, made it short!

Rewarding Long Work Days

Our working days were long but enjoyable, often confronting and always rewarding.

One day when we arrived to work from a hospital in Bayan Urt, a riot was about to erupt amongst the locals. We left the area – as much for our own safety as for theirs – and returned 45 minutes later under police escort.

The people who came to our clinics travelled for hours on horseback or by foot and often waited more hours to be seen. For many, this was the first eye examination they had ever had.

On arrival, they registered with a local volunteer who took their personal details then sent them to the pre-testing area where they were tested with the illiterate E chart. If they passed the test they were able to leave. If they failed they took a seat and waited to see one of our optometrists who conducted a basic eye test to determine a prescription. Our translators were absolutely invaluable at this point, and the clinics could not have run smoothly without them.

The Dispensing Area

Our patients moved from their eye test to the dispensing area where we found the closest match in either donated specs or ready-mades. Frame adjustment was a case of what could be done with hands, files, screwdrivers and a few spare parts – in many clinics we had no electricity, let alone a hot air blower or heat beads.

During our two and a half weeks in Mongolia we saw approximately 1,200 people and dispensed 1,500 pairs of spectacles (some received readers and long distance specs).

I have never seen so many balance lenses prescribed in such a short period of time as a result of trauma (kicks from horses or being hit by pieces of wood), from glaucoma or other undiagnosed diseases. Sadly many of these diseases could be prevented if medical care was more accessible.

It was wonderful to find an appropriate pair of spectacles from our stocks and to see the look of delight on each patient’s face when they were given a page of Mongolian newspaper to view with their “new” readers. A lot of people showed their appreciation with the thumbs up signal – a universal sign for “all good.” Most were so happy that they wanted to shake our hands. Others were thrilled enough to offer their hugs and kisses too!

Do it Again? Absolutely!

My time in Mongolia was really special and I consider myself to be so lucky to have been a part of it. There is nothing like the feeling you get when you are there, working, observing, learning, watching, listening and seeing a culture so different to your own.

Many people ask me if I would do it all again. Absolutely – I already have about 150 pairs of donated specs ready to go in my garage!

The Wandering Eyes Project conducts clinics in Mongolia and Nepal. For more information phone (AUS) 02 6056 4000.

Carolyn Morley has over 20 years experience as an Optical Dispenser and Manager in Melbourne, Sydney, London and country NSW. This was her first eye clinic to Mongolia and won’t be her last. She lives in Albury with her partner Matt (also a Dispenser) and their dog Tesh.