When Dr. Bill Rudy, an optometrist who lives in Hudson and works at Northeast Ohio Eye Surgeons in Kent, Stow and Fairlawn, traveled to El Salvador for a medical mission, he didn’t expect to meet anyone else from his home town. 

He was in El Salvador for exactly one day when one of the interpreters told him, "You know, I graduated Hudson High School in 2004."

Susan Barnish, it turns out, had been living in El Salvador for three years. She works with the Chalanatengo Diocese and graduated from Rochester University with a degree in Spanish. Later, she got a master’s degree in translation from Kent State University. While working in the field, she volunteered for her own medical mission tour to El Salvador. After the trip, she found herself fixated. She told her parents, quit her job and moved to El Salvador, which was supposed to be for a year. 

Three years later and Barnish is still there.

Rudy says Eyecare International — Rudy’s mission — could not have survived for the Feb. 4 to Feb. 18 trip without Barnish and the other interpreting volunteers. The group of 40 people lived together in cabins, and local connections supplied the group with four cooks and four armed guards, though the entire trip felt safe, Rudy says.

The mission group averaged seeing approximately 200 patients per day the days he was in the clinic, Rudy says.

"This isn’t your American in-depth eye exam," he said, "This is a team approach where I rely on laypeople to help me gather data with visual acuities and other important information." 

Rudy then administered a quick view of patient’s eye health, then triages to sunglasses, readers, prescription glasses or potential surgery. A couple of ophthalmologists on the team perform more in-depth dilated eye exams to decide if surgery was an option — usually only possible if the patient is nearly blind.

Rudy’s ECI group was started by a local ophthalmologist, Dr. William Brinker, MD, in Kent. Brinker’s first mission to El Salvador was in 1995. Since then, the group has endured 23 missions to El Salvador and one to Honduras.

Brinker passed away in 2017, but the ECI continues.

The group gathers and organizes donated prescription and non-prescription eye glasses throughout the year. The group is based in Kent and Ravenna and has members in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Canada and a small group in Utah. The group has a few optometrists, a few ophthalmologists, and a lot of laypeople who just care.

"One of my own patients, Gerry Lewis, from Ravenna got me involved," Rudy says.

If interested in helping this group supply eye care to individuals in need in Central America, visit EyeCareInt.org. Volunteers are always welcome.