High demand for care and a commitment to his maternal heritage drives this optometrist toward a lofty goal for the island country

By Amanda Miller

The first year optometrist Dr. Richard Cross and a team of three staffed a free eye clinic in Jamaica, they saw 100 patients a day, while 100 more had to go home without care. The volunteers went back later, meaning to treat only those they had turned away, but the same thing happened.

Dr. Richard Cross examines a patient at a free eye clinic in Jamaica. (photo courtesy Dr. Richard Cross)

That first trip was in 1996. Cross cofounded the nonprofit Eye Health Institute in 2000 to continue staffing eye clinics on the island, where, as a child, the Michigan native often spent summers with his grandparents. His mother’s family is from Jamaica.

Today Cross is president of the Boulder-based nonprofit that sends teams to the island a couple times a year—volunteers who pay for their own travel—to perform eye exams, glaucoma screenings, cataract surgeries and to provide medications and glasses at no cost.

A laminated map of the island is tacked up over Cross’ desk at Boulder Vision Associates. He traces the Eye Health Institute’s movements into progressively remote outposts over the years. The organization now coordinates with the country’s health ministry to operate in a mountainous area where the people have no other access to eye care.

The Eye Health Institute has expanded its reach more recently, partnering with optometry and ophthalmology schools to recruit interns and surgical residents from around the U.S. to volunteer. The students get what Cross describes as an intense clinical experience for the one week that they’re there.

He’d like to extend the clinical rotations to six or even 12 weeks. Meanwhile, the organization has also helped design a mobile eye clinic made from a shipping container, and its doctors performed the country’s first corneal transplant in the public health system.

But, as with most small nonprofits, the year-to-year task of funding is still tough. At the same time, a long-term goal isn’t getting much closer.

The Eye Health Institute’s mobile eye clinic was made from a shipping container. (photo courtesy Dr. Richard Cross)

Cross estimates that it would cost only $100,000—land and all—to build a permanent, concrete, climate-controlled clinic powered by solar panels to preserve the delicate medical equipment that’s either bought, donated or transported back and forth each visit.
“Throughout the entire Caribbean, the salt air just destroys the electronics,” Cross said. While the life expectancy of a piece of equipment might be 20 years at an office in the U.S., “down there you’re lucky if you can even get to five on something as simple as a chair that goes up and down.”

In the Eye Health Institute’s one room inside a primitive aid station, Cross says the equipment is on its last leg. Ideally, he would like to see a new six-room building and eventually a local person to come in when volunteers aren’t present to perform periodic tests. He would also like to start using telemedicine to check on distant patients.
“There’s no shortage of patients, and the demand is great,” he said. “The hope is these communities we serve will continue to have optometry and ophthalmology care in the decades to come.”