Dr. Tom Margius, an optometrist in Milford and a Milford resident, said his quest for professional service, fellowship, and travel began in 1983 as a fourth year optometry student in Cape Haitian, Haiti. During that trip his group connected with the local town and the Catholic Church to provide visual screenings, exams, simple medical treatments, eyeglasses, and sunglasses to the Haitian citizens.
Fast forward 33 years to January 2016, when the local optometrist completed his eighth foreign mission trip with the Volunteers of Optometric Service to Humanity (VOSH).

“This year my wife, Sue, accompanied me on her first mission trip to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua,” Margius said. “She had heard of the people, places, and politics of past mission trips that I completed alongside our daughter, Deanna. The mission trip of 2016 proved to be a new experience in many ways for the both of us.”

The trip to Nicaragua was not too far; it took them about six hours by plane. They flew from Hartford to Miami and then to Managua. Spanish is widely spoken, and English is used less frequently. It is difficult to communicate without an attempt at speaking the native tongue.

“Many locals grabbed at our bags, attempting to squeeze a tip out of us as we started our journey to San Juan del Sur,” Margius said. “I noticed a Nicaraguan man making a rose out of a piece of palm in less than a minute. He, too, was looking for financial compensation for his efforts. The temperature was in the mid 80s, and most people were wearing short-sleeve shirts and loose fitting pants. Upon traveling a short distance from the airport, we noticed the smell of burning mesquite. Warding off the evening mosquitoes is critical in this tropical area.”

The mission group arrived in several waves, each finding its way to the mission town on separate buses.

“Our bus ride to San Juan del Sur was about 2.5 hours,” Margius said.

The city is nestled in the southwestern edge of Nicaragua, about 30 miles from the border of Costa Rica,. On his first mission trip, Margius observed many dirt roads, street dogs, and colorful street vendors that sold local flowers, fruit and painted ceramics.

“Approaching San Juan del Sur, we noticed several very large wind turbines that were generating power at the edge of Lake Nicaragua; I also saw a few volcanoes. On the outskirts of town we began to see that the open countryside thinned and turned into a tighter more settled community. Pretty views and tropical plants were seen throughout the town.”

The mission started on Sunday, though many trip volunteers arrived early to enjoy the tourism. Everyone brought with them bags of supplies, which were transported to the clinic site — the local elementary school. The bags contained sunglasses, eye medications and lubricants, Lions Club glasses, and other supplies that helped to provide quality eyecare.

“Most of us ate and completed activities together,” Margius said. “We usually got up at sunrise and Sue and I walked around the town and along the beach before the start of our work day. Our arrival at the clinic was welcomed by a few buses of patients waiting outside our clinic rooms. Each clinic room was staffed by one licensed doctor and five optometry interns from United States schools. Interpreters were also present in every clinic room and in the optical. We served over 3,200 patients. We provided a pair of sunglasses to everyone, as well as prescription glasses, over-the-counter readers, and medications when needed.”

The days were exhausting and exhilarating. The volunteers saw common conditions, but also several unusual ones. These cases were shared with other clinicians. Some patients were illiterate and could not identify letters or numbers.

“However, we were able to help improve their vision using directional E or shape eyecharts,” Tom Margius said.

The temperature and long days took a toll on the group. It was a marathon, yet the fourth and final day proved bittersweet as it meant it was time to leave.

“My wife, daughter, and I have many great memories of the care we provided, the lives we touched, and the lessons we learned,” Margius said. “You give a piece of yourself during these trips, yet you always get something back in return.”