For the last 20 years, Dr. Dick Watts has been staring into Jamaican eyes.
The Whitehorse optometrist went to the tropical island for a holiday in 1981.
There was political unrest and he was warned not to leave his compound.
“But as soon as someone tells you not to do something …,” he said.
“I ventured out.”
And the people were wonderful, said Watts.
“If you treat them with respect and humour, you get the same back and more.”
The next year Watts returned to Jamaica, but not for the beaches.
Toting basic equipment, like a handheld retina-scope, Watts and several other optometrists set up booths in the local villages and began looking at eyes.
The optometrists paid their own way to Jamaica and volunteered their time.
The only support they got was from the Jamaican Lion’s Club, which gave them accommodation.
“We were seeing approximately 300 people a day, 200 kids and 100 adults,” said Watts.
There are only 12 eye-care professionals in Jamaica, servicing a population of 3.5 million.
“People were lined up for blocks,” said Watts.
“There is such a need and we are not even beginning to scratch the surface.”
Watts remembers a five-year-old girl walking toward him, holding her mother’s hand.
“The way she was walking, I could tell she couldn’t see,” he said.
After waiting in line, the little girl finally stood in front of Watts.
Worried the mother and child were hoping for a miracle, Watts began examining the girl’s eyes.
He wasn’t hopeful.
“I was looking for movement — anything,” he said.
Folks who need glasses to function have prescriptions in the minus four range.
This little girl was at minus 20.
“She couldn’t see anything past a quarter inch,” said Watts.
He fitted the tiny child with trial frames. “They are the ugliest looking things,” he said, holding up a set of mad-scientist frames with metal blinders and numbers running down the sides.
The little girl stood very still with the clunky glasses perched on her nose.
“She was standing in the hall where she could see all these people and she was totally mesmerized — almost afraid — it was overwhelming,” said Watts.
He guided her outside. “And she looked over the valley at the trees,” said Watts.
Then her mother called her.
The little girl looked over at the woman saying her name and hesitated.
“She had never seen her mom’s face before,” said Watts, his eyes welling up.
Watts returned to Jamaica to examine eyes year after year.
“I’ve been down there 20 to 25 times in the last 30 years,” he said.
“I’d go there for a week at a time, and lately I’ve been going twice a year.”
The trips were always on Watts’s own dime.
“How could I not keep coming back?” he said.
“There are old people who can’t read and all they want to do is read the Bible.
“You can’t walk away from something like that.”
After every eye exam, Watts fits his patients with standard frames. The frames come back to Canada with the optometrists and the prescriptions are fitted in their labs.
The suppliers are good about donating the lenses and frames, said Watts.
Once the glasses are ready, they’re sent back to the Lion’s Club in Jamaica for distribution.
Watts doesn’t know if his patients get the glasses, although he’s never heard of a pair not being picked up.
“It would be nice to have time to do follow-up work and make sure the kids and adults get their glasses, and that they fit properly,” he said.
In the 28 years he’s been volunteering in Jamaica, Watts and his compatriots have donated more that $55 million in supplies and services and have examined more than 270,000 patients.
“But for every one we saw, there was probably 10,000 we didn’t see,” he said.
“And we haven’t even touched Kingston.”
The country’s capital is in the process of setting up its first eye clinic, and Watts has spent his last six trips helping out.
Now, when the optometrists discover things like cataracts, their hands are often tied.
“It’s a simple operation,” said Watts. “But who is going to treat it?”
Getting operating time in the local medical centres is next to impossible, he said.
“So, now, what do you do?”
Watts has seen 70-year-old men who are totally blind with cataracts, and have been for 15 years.
“And not knowing how soon you’re going to be able to get him in and have those cataracts removed — knowing full well once they are removed he’s going to have another life after 70 …
“Here we don’t even think about it, you go in and have the operation done.”
Cases like this are the hardest part of Watts’ volunteer work.
“If I come away frustrated, it’s under those conditions,” he said.
But the clinic in Kingston could help stave off senseless cases of blindness.
“I’ve seen things in Jamaica, that have not been treated, that you’d never see here,” said Watts.
“Here people have a red eye and they get it treated, but over there you see the end result of what can happen with these simple red eyes that never get treated — I’ve seen eyes that have gotten so inflamed it’s led to
For the first time in more than two decades of volunteer work, Watts’ home community is helping to raise funds for the Kingston clinic.
The Whitehorse Lion’s club is hosting some fundraisers, including a casino in the fall.
Watts plans to retire from his fulltime Northern Lights Optometry practice in the next few years.
“My plan is to work here part time, and then spend two or three months in Jamaica in the winter, following up with the work we do,” he said.
Every time Watts heads down to Jamaica, it’s like a homecoming.
“It’s made me a much better optometrist,” he said. “Because I can relate to just about anybody, at any time, under any conditions.”
To help support the eye clinic in Kingston, Jamaica, contact the Whitehorse Lions at 456-2700.
Contact Genesee Keevil at