Downtowners Doing Good: Dr. Veronica Ruelas Local Optometrist Bestows Gift of Sight on the Far Side of the World

A Battery Park City eye doctor is traveling around the world several times each year to provide free optometric services to impoverished residents of developing nations. Dr. Veronica Ruelas, who has been practicing at Artsee Eyewear (on North End Way, opposite Shake Shack) since 2011, returned on Monday from the most recent of these trips, to Haiti. "I flew down on Friday night and spent the weekend at an orphanage in a place called Hinche, about two hours outside of Port-au-Prince, where I examined and treated around 40 children, and then got back on Monday evening," she recalls. "I decided to go because a friend is adopting a child from Hinche, so she travels there once a month. When she described the conditions there, like rampant pink eye, I knew I had to try to help. I brought medication, and also spent some time training local caregivers."

This was Dr. Ruelas' first trip to Haiti, but her eleventh journey to remote locations in Third World countries where optometric services for poor people are either unheard of, or else in gravely short supply.

"I began doing this six years ago," she recalls. "I went to India by myself in 2008, to see if I could help people." This desire to serve sprang from a personal and professional reevaluation, she says. "I was ten years into practicing optometry at that point, and was thinking about giving it up. I was studying to become a yoga instructor, and going through an intense program, during which I lived in an ashram in India and studied yoga philosophy."

"One of the paths to yoga is called karma yoga," she explains, "and is focused on people who devote their lives to service. This is viewed as a way to train the mind and to help purify the soul. And when I realized, because of karma yoga, that I could use optometry to help people, that reenergized my professional life."

Dr. Ruelas began by setting up a temporary clinic in the town of Uttarkashi, in northern India, near the borders with China and Nepal. This town, which was also home to the ashram where she was studying, is several days' travel time from Delhi. "In that area of India," she notes, "there is one optometrist serving 70,000 people." She started by bringing medications and used eyeglasses, which she gave to people whose prescriptions matched the lenses on the donated pairs of glasses.

On subsequent trips to India, she brought more sophisticated equipment, along with other eye doctors. "Now we have multiple optometrists and ophthalmologists on each trip," she says, "which means we can do everything from eye exams up to cataract surgeries."

On her last trip to India, "our team of five doctors saw 750 people in three and a half days. We have to work hard and fast because it takes three days to get there and three days to get out. So we need to pack in as much work as we can in a short time. And even at this pace, we didn't get to see everybody who wanted our help. Many of these people walked for hours to get to us, and waited many hours more in line. And for all of the patients we saw, this was the first eye exam they've ever had."

In the years since the first trip, Dr. Ruelas has returned to India four more times, with additional sojourns to Brazil, Peru, and Lebanon. "I haven't done this in Africa, yet," she says, "but I'm hoping to go there soon." The most moving experience she has had on any of these journeys, she says, "was in a small town in the Peruvian Andes. I was treating a young mother who was so severely nearsighted that she couldn't see anything more than an inch or two away from her eyes. Once we gave her the appropriate glasses, she was able to see her infant child for the first time, after months of holding the baby in her arms. She couldn't stop crying."

The most discouraging aspect of her work abroad, Dr. Ruelas says, "is the red tape, the bureaucratic bottle necks, and the corruption that are everywhere in the developing world. These things make it much harder to do this work than it should be."

Looking to the future, Dr. Ruelas is hoping to build a permanent clinic in Uttarkashi, which will function year-round, instead of only when she and the teams she leads travel to India. "If I can get that up and running with permanent equipment and trained staff," she says, "I'd like to use it as a template to create similar facilities in other countries. Then, I'd like to launch an online portal where medical professionals can browse volunteer opportunities in different countries and sign up for times when they are available."

In the meantime, she is planning another trip to India (with a smaller team) in November, followed by a larger trek in March of next year. "I'm hooked," is Dr. Ruelas' answer to why she undertakes these pilgrimages, which are funded from her own savings. "It's really very selfish, because anybody who does this kind of work gets so much out of it. The people I treat are happy," she reflects. "By American standards, they have nothing, but they love life. So they are onto something that very few people here get."

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