Military optometrists eye new patients during Shared Accord 2010

TENGA, Mozambique -- Stepahno Shivanbe didn't know much English, but he knew enough to say, "Thank you. Thank you very much." So that's all he repeated, time and time again, as he walked out of the exam room - an olive drab shipping container marked "Optometry."

The elderly man was one of the first patients treated at the optometry section of the Task Force Unity coordinated humanitarian civil assistance program that began in the tiny Mozambican village of Tenga, Aug. 4, as part of Exercise SHARED ACCORD 2010.

"He's like a plus 12, which is way off," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Daniel Dillinger, describing Shivanbe's nearsightedness. "This will be the first time he's seen in years."

His patient had suffered from cataracts before a botched surgery in 2009 that only worsened the man's condition.

Dillinger, an optometrist with the 940th Aerospace Medical Flight headquartered at Beale AFB near Sacramento, Calif., looked on as U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Darrin Oglesby, an optometry technician with the 507th Medical Squadron out of Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, fashioned Shivanbe a pair of dual-lens glasses using a length of surgical tape.

"We're going to have to tape two pairs of glasses together to make it work," said Oglesby as he tried lens combinations.

The sum total of two prescriptions came close to, but still couldn't fully meet, Shivanbe's prescription. None of the 2,400 stocked lenses, which were primarily donated by Lion's Club members in the U.S., were strong enough the meet the man's extraordinary needs.

Oglesby fitted Shivanbe's glasses and had him try out his new spectacles on near and far away objects. Through hand motions, the two decided on the best view, and Shivanbe's smile told the airmen their unorthodox creation was working.

Master Sgt. Andrew Bogart, a medic with the 514th Aerospace Medicine Sqaudron, said such nonverbal communication was key because tribal language translators were in short supply.

"It's mostly kind of sign language," he said. "A lot of thumbs up, thumbs down."

Still, despite the difficulties, the men smiled right along with their patients.

And after years of near blindness, Shivanbe's new glasses returned his vision.

The airmen of the optometry section have seen an average of 75 patients a day, with common ailments ranging from cataracts to glaucoma, to ptyergius - a condition in which the white of the eye grows over the pupil, obstructing or obscuring vision altogether, according to Dillinger.

"Many of the conditions we see are caused because of chronic dryness, dust and ultraviolet exposure," Dillinger said. "In the States we have so many tools around us to treat these conditions, but here - it's you and your brain."

Dillinger, along with a team of Marines, sailors and soldiers, will travel to two more villages to provide medical and dental aid as SA10 continues.

The exercise brings together more than 1,000 U.S. service members and Mozambican soldiers for the purpose of increasing Mozambique's capacity to carry out peace and stability operations.