Kieran Grogan’s three-week trip to Tarapoto, Peru not only changed his career path; it also revolutionized his view on life.
“Before I left I remember thinking of the trip as a type of vacation,” said Grogan, a Virginia Tech junior and Mount Vernon resident. “I did not know that I was about to experience a trip that would change my life forever.”
Sitting in the library amidst a sea of Medical College Admission Test study books and science-related coursework, Grogan jokes that maybe his trip would be the end of him before he could even begin to help anyone.
Dr. Rodolfo Rios, Grogan’s uncle, invited him to accompany him and his son, Daniel, on a service trip to the Peruvian city of Tarapoto — a city nested in the Amazon rainforest.
The goal of the trip was to perform as many free eye surgeries for the native people of Tarapoto as possible.
Rios is an eye surgeon and Peruvian native who operates a private ophthalmology practice in Lewes, Del. He is also a member of the Lions Club, an international service club organization.
The three met at Washington Dulles International airport on the morning of May 22, 2015.
“At many points I really believed that the trip was not going to happen,” said Grogan.
There were a couple of reasons why Grogan had this mindset. The first reason was Rios and son Daniel arrived 30 minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off.
Then, a TSA agent told Grogan that his carry-on bag needed to be checked in, as it was too large to bring aboard the plane. However, the group had already checked multiple bags full of medical supplies and thus had reached their check-in limit. They opted to wait until the TSA agent was distracted and snuck through.
“It didn’t stop there though, the adventure was just beginning,” Grogan said.
Rios got on board the flight first. When Grogan and Daniel Rios tried to get on next, they realized that the boarding passes in their hands were the ones for Panama to Tarapoto. Their passes from D.C. to their connecting flight in Panama were in Dr. Rios’ possession, who was already on the plane. With no other choice, they tried getting on the flight with their mislabeled tickets. By some stroke of good luck, both men got on the plane without a problem.
“It was a miracle that we evaded security not only once, but twice,” said Grogan. “The plane was delayed by five minutes because my uncle was begging the pilot to wait for us; 30 seconds after we got on the plane we were in the air.”
The trio landed in the city of Tarapoto, Peru late that evening.
“The airport was small and the humidity was exceptionally high even though it was around 11 p.m.,” said Grogan. “ I had never seen anything like it.”
Señora Wong, head of the Lions Club division in Tarapoto, received them from the airport. They then took a cab to Hotel Cielo, where they stayed for the duration of their visit.
“The pictures I looked at online of the hotel were deceiving to say the least,” said Grogan. “We found a cockroach in our shower, and a thin layer of dust blanketed the entire hotel.”
Through billboard advertisements, word of mouth, and people walking through the streets with megaphones, the people of Tarapoto were informed that ophthalmologists would be coming to perform pro bono eye surgeries.
The first day was dedicated to screening patients and evaluating the severity of their conditions.
Grogan spent the majority of the first day performing basic eye tests and doing paper work. The paperwork’s requirements were minimal – full name and phone number, if the patient even had a phone.
Grogan remembers the first day being hot, overwhelming and crowded. The Tarapoto General Hospital was worn down, without air conditioning and very small. All of the toilets were located outside.
“The first day was not pleasant and I began questioning what I had gotten myself into,” said Grogan.
The second day was the first day of surgeries. Dr. Rios, Grogan, Daniel Rios and local doctor Carlos Sanchez, woke up at 6 a.m. to evaluate the paper work from the previous day in order to treat those with the most severe eye problems.
The most common issue was cataracts, which according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology will eventually cause blindness if left untreated.
“In Peru the poor people often work outside every day for the bulk of their lives, where intense exposure to the sun calcifies the crystalline lens of the eye which causes reversible blindness,” said Dr. Rios. “In America, cataracts can be removed by a simple surgery, however, there are very few professionals in Tarapoto who can treat this condition.”
“The people were covered in dirt, and their faces would have to be washed before their surgeries began,” said Grogan.
The team lacked the supplies that would be commonplace in America, making the surgeries much more painful and risky. Due to the lack of equipment, the surgeries would require a different technique and therefore take around an hour.
“I stood on the other side of my uncle throughout the surgeries holding a syringe full of water which I would squirt into the patient’s eye when it got too bloody,” said Grogan. “It was exhilarating to be a part of giving someone their vision back.”
The team worked constantly from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday for the following six days.
Each day Grogan was granted one break for lunch at around 3 p.m. At lunch he was served a whole fish caught straight from the river, served alongside some rice.
“I knew I had to eat it because it would probably be the only thing I would get to eat all day,” Grogan said. “Apparently the fish was considered a delicacy to the locals, unfortunately I found it to be rather unpleasant.”
During his lunch break Grogan and his cousin would often buy fish from the poor locals and give them to the starving stray dogs.
Grogan’s most vivid memory of the trip came on the last day of surgeries.
A husband and wife came to the hospital hysterically crying and begging Dr. Rios, Grogan, and the rest of the team to help their 3-year-old daughter who was suffering from a chalazion. The team stayed an hour late to help her.
A chalazion is a slowly developed lump that is caused from the swelling of the eye, and is rather simple to fix. However, the chalazion had been left untreated for three months and had become dangerous.
“The surgery was difficult because we needed six people to hold this little girl still, and there was a lot of bleeding as the eye had gotten so bad,” said Dr. Rios. “I was sweating and there was blood everywhere, but the surgery was a success.”
“I will remember that surgery for the rest of my life,” said Grogan. “That day we saved the vision of the bravest 3-year-old I have ever met.”
In one week Grogan and the rest of the team removed 67 cataracts.
On the last day all of the patients were required to go to the hospital so that Dr. Rios and Sanchez could check on their recovery. At this point the patients were able to take off their eye patches and see again.
“Many broke down crying and began kissing our hands,” said Grogan. “It was a really emotional time for all of us.”
“It was in that moment that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” said Grogan. “I think that all medical practices are cool, but vision is by far the most beautiful gift that you can give someone; I knew ophthalmology was the career path that I wanted to pursue.
Since Grogan has returned from the trip, he has begun pursuing an education in ophthalmology. He frequently can be found in the library either studying for one of his demanding classes or for the MCAT.
“Life is really just so simple,” said Grogan when asked what his main takeaway from the trip was. “Even something as seemingly basic as our eyesight is really a gift.”