Testing eyes and testing limits in Everest: Sophie Woodburn

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Sophie Woodburn, Optometrist at Specsavers Taupo in New Zealand, spent three weeks in October participating in an Eyes4Everest outreach trip after winning a Young Optometrists NSW / ACT Instagram competition at the 2017 Specsavers Clinical Conference (SCC). Having just returned from the trip, she details the professional and personal challenges she faced while trekking in the Himalayas.

If you’d told me 18 months ago I’d be on a plane returning home from three weeks volunteering on Mount Everest, I would have thought you were crazy. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to be the winner of a Specsavers-sponsored trip with Eyes4Everest, making this crazy dream a reality.

Eyes4Everest was created to provide primary eye care and prescription eyewear for the people of the Everest National Park. This year saw us visit three towns – Phakding, Phortse and Pangboche – each with its own mix of lovely people and unique challenges.

We were incredibly lucky to have a great local support team, who doubled as translators, guides, pre-testers and organisers. Glasses could be ordered as needed, and will be redistributed by our Nepalese locals in a few weeks’ time. Using BIO and a handheld slit lamp, we were able to assess and refer patients with cataracts, pterygiums, diabetic retinopathy and more. We saw a significant amount of dry and itchy eyes, so our lubrication and anti-histamine drops were well received.

Professionally, we faced a number of challenges in the clinics, including language barriers, and lack of power and equipment. However, the biggest advantage was the kind and patient nature of the Sherpa people. Coming from near and far, some people had walked more than two hours through the hills to see us. A record day meant testing into the dark, but with no one in a rush, everyone was happy to wait, all with big smiles. Testing vision became a group event, with lots of locals wanting to help their friends guess the symbols on our charts. We all greatly appreciated a number of younger patients who hung around after their own tests to help translate for our older patients.

On a personal level, this trip pushed me physically and mentally more than I could have anticipated. It has reinforced to me the privilege we have living and working in New Zealand, and the positive difference we can make to others on a personal level. I became an optometrist to be able to make a difference to people’s quality of life, so it has been incredibly humbling knowing I can transfer those skills to regions that need it. The 70+ hours of hiking were well worth the effort for the lifelong memories I made with the Eyes4Everest group.

Being part of a volunteer program has been one of the most impactful journeys I’ve taken so far, and I would highly recommend all of Eyes4Everest’s trips to anyone wanting to give back, do more, or test their limits. Eyes4Everest is incredibly close to its long-term goal of setting up a permanent clinic in Khumjung, which would allow locals to have sustainable and self-sufficient access to eye care. Those who volunteer and donate will help us get over the line.

I personally hope to continue working with Eyes4Everest on their beautiful Annapurna trip in 2020. I never expected to come away with more than I gave, and I can’t thank Specsavers, Eyes4Everest, and the Sherpa communities enough for the life-changing, eye-opening experience.

For more information about Eyes4Everest, visit eyes4everest.org.au and look out for another competition at the 2019 SCC.

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