A pair of glasses can change lives

Vernon optometrist Dr. Tanner Udenberg after fitting a pair of glasses for a young man in Thailand who has a very high prescription, is legally blind and whose life will be much improved now that he has some sight. - photo submitted
Vernon optometrist Dr. Tanner Udenberg after fitting a pair of glasses for a young man in Thailand who has a very high prescription, is legally blind and whose life will be much improved now that he has some sight.
— image credit: photo submitted

When Dr. Tanner Udenberg prescribes glasses for his patients in Canada, he can be fairly certain they will have the prescription filled and then they will get on with their lives.

When he prescribes glasses for patients on his optometry trips to Third World countries, he sees lives changed when he is able to give them glasses.

“Sometimes people are getting their first pair of glasses and they haven’t realized how much they couldn’t see. We have had some really good experiences. There was a mother on our Nicaragua trip last year who had a high prescription. When we got closer to her prescription and she could see more clearly, she started crying. When she got her glasses, she called her children over and touched their faces. She had never seen her kids’ faces clearly before. It was very powerful,” said Udenberg, who has also done optometry assistance trips to Thailand, Mexico and Fiji. The trip to Nicaragua with his wife, Renée, was with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, an international organization.

Udenberg, a Kalamalka secondary school graduate who has a degree in pharmacology from the University of Alberta and in optometry from the University of Waterloo, moved back to Vernon last fall, after practising in Edmonton. He got interested in volunteer medical services when he was in university and accompanied his father, Dr. Terrill Udenberg, on a veterinary services trip.

“We did several clinics in Nicaragua. I was the only optometrist because the others had cancelled so we were working 14 hours a day and seeing more than 100 people a day, ages five to 91, helping them with used glasses that had been donated. When people get a decent prescription, it’s an instant change in their lives, like giving them a whole new life. They can go to school, get a job and function better in day to day living,” said Udenberg. “Having glasses is something we take for granted here but for them it’s a whole new world. Not many things impact life in such a big way. I want to use the skills I have and do more.”

The clinics are held in partnership with local governments which help with transportation and interpreters. The volunteers take their own equipment, as well as the donated glasses, because the clinic space is often basic, in a school, church or unused building.

“In Fiji, we were under the trees and had the vision chart tacked onto a tree. We went to some very remote islands by boat and trekked into the hills where there were villages of only a few  tin-roofed houses. We work with what we have and do the job we came to do. It’s a humbling and rewarding experience,” he said.

He recalled a teenager in Nicaragua who had one functional eye who was laughing and smiling when he got glasses and giving the universal thumbs up sign of approval.

“We’re all just people and we communicate even if we don’t speak the same language. There was a young man in Thailand who has a very high prescription, legally blind and we were able to help him with glasses. His life will be much better now that he has some sight. The people are very grateful and humble and say thank you and ask us to come back and invite us to their homes and show us around. A little girl in Thailand gave me a bracelet she had made. That was very touching.”

Udenberg said seeing how things are in other countries has made him more grateful to have grown up in Canada and had an education he can use to help others.

“If I can help a few people, I should be doing that. I want to make that difference in people’s lives and I will do more trips, hopefully another one this year. And it’s good to be back here in Vernon reconnecting with the community.”

On his first day of work in Vernon at Vernon Optometry, he was happily surprised to see his kindergarten teacher, Susan Laroque, sitting in the exam chair as his first patient. Vernon Optometry staff raised more than $3,000 for Optometry Giving Sight, a non-profit society to help with Third World eye care, during World Sight Day in October. Clinics across the country take part in raising money and collecting glasses for Third World eye care.

“Out of clinics across the country we were in the top 10 this past year and would like to thank our staff and patients for doing such a great job,” said Udenberg, adding that the office is a drop-off for donations of glasses that are no longer needed.


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