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‘Haiti is where my heart is’
Through travels, local ophthalmologist learned the importance of giving back
When most people plan vacations, they think of beaches and ski resorts or foreign locales.
For ophthalmologist Sue Carlson, many vacations are spent in a different way. For the past 10 years, much of her vacation time has been dedicated not to leisure, but to service. She believes in the idea that one should give back what he or she has been given. For her, that means service trips to Third World countries at least once or twice a year.
Corkboards filled with photos from her travels line the walls of her office inside the Falls Church location of Kaiser Permanente, where Carlson has worked since 1989. As part of her job, she performs surgery to heal all varieties of eye disease, including cataracts. She has done similar surgeries for many of the people pictured on the boards, helping them to see more clearly. In the process, she’s learned to look at her own life in a new way — with eyes wide open to all she has been given.
Carlson attended Catholic schools from kindergarten all the way through high school, before pursuing multiple degrees. She graduated with a degree in nutrition from Miami of Ohio in 1974. That year, she married her husband, David, with whom she has two children. After working as a nutritionist for several years, she applied to Georgetown Medical School.
“It was really difficult for me to get into medical school, so I made a deal that to be grateful, I would be sure to do things to give back to the world,” Carlson said.
After receiving a doctorate from Georgetown in 1985, Carlson completed her ophthalmology residency in 1989. Ten years later, she became involved with an organization called World Blindness Outreach, which sends volunteer physicians and technicians to impoverished countries where vision care is not readily available.
Carlson’s first trip — the first time she ever used her passport — was in 1999 to Vietnam. Since then, she has become involved with more groups that provide vision care internationally, including the Lions Club, Eye Care International and Medical Missionaries. In the years since, she has traveled to Ecuador, Honduras, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Bolivia, Peru, El Salvador, India, the Philippines and the Republic of Congo. This year, she took two trips — to El Salvador in February and India in July.
Her patients suffer from extremely poor vision, often rendering them unable to see even basic hand motions. To be able to provide a sense of vision to people like that, Carlson said, is hugely moving.
“(Patients) are led into an operating room (where they have surgery) and then we put the patch on. When they take the patch off, they can see,” she said. “When that happens, the patients are crying, their families are crying, we’re crying.”
In addition to her medical work overseas, Carlson works with the Haiti Committee at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Parish in Arlington. Her involvement began 10 years ago, when she chaperoned her daughter on a trip to Medor, Haiti, where Our Lady, Queen of Peace has a twin parish, St. Joseph. That first trip was a difficult one, Carlson said, mostly due to Medor’s location. Though Medor is a mere 30 miles from the airport, it is located high in the Cato mountains, meaning the journey can take 12 to 15 hours, with the final 10 miles only possible on foot.
During her first trip to Haiti, Carlson and her daughter never made it to Medor. Instead, they took care of another chaperone on the trip who had to stop hiking due to severe chest pains. On her second trip to Haiti, eight months later, Carlson only made it to Medor after a frightening uphill mule ride at night. During the trip, the mule kept falling, as did the little boy in charge of pushing him up the hill. Carlson spent much of the journey praying.
Despite the challenges, she soon fell in love with Haiti.
“Once you go there, you just get kind of hooked,” she said. “Haiti is where my heart is.”
After coming back from those first trips, Carlson became more involved with the Haiti Committee. For the past six years, she has served as chairwoman. She travels to Medor at least once a year and does at least one or two hours of work for the committee daily.
Among the committee’s projects are a clean water project, reforestation, latrine building and helping to rebuild the local school, which was damaged in aftershocks from the 2010 earthquake. Above all, though, the committee works to build solidarity with the Haitian parishioners.
“By walking shoulder to shoulder with another group of people, we’re showing we all have equal dignity in God’s eye,” Carlson said.
Working with Haiti is often challenging. Carlson had to adapt to a slower pace of communication, as well as the idea that change can take a long time. Even the simplest projects can take years to implement.
“We’re so used to having instant gratification, but that’s not the way it is there. I had to learn to be patient,” she said. “We want all this progress to happen all at once and it happens really slowly and anything that can happen will go wrong. I keep having to remind myself that you might take a couple baby steps forward and a couple baby steps backward, but as long as you’re moving forward, you’re doing well.”
The benefits, though, outweigh the challenges. Carlson is always inspired by the people in Medor for their kindness, their joy and their faith. Because she travels to the community regularly, she has friends there.
One of those friends, a man named Daniel, wrote her a note of thanks, which reads, “We would like to thank you for the gift of education for our children. We would like to thank you for the gift of a meal for all of our children. We would like to thank you for the gift of clean water for the community, for the gift of trees and latrines, but most of all we’d like to thank you for the gift of a better life.”
Carlson keeps the note framed in her house.
“Just knowing that they’re praying for us every day, it’s just what keeps us going,” she said.
And more than anything else, Carlson has learned to appreciate all she has been given.
“I can’t take a drink of water without thinking of the people of Haiti. I can’t take a shower without thinking of the people of Haiti,” she said. “I feel so fortunate to have been born in the United States to a family that values education. If there were other circumstances, I might be the one who would be benefiting from getting this help. It really hits home about the inequities of the world and how we’re all born in the same image and likeness, but some of us have so many more opportunities than others and it’s important to try to share.”