2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Colorado Springs pediatric eye surgeon spreads her talents around the globe

Published: June 8, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin

Dr. Ingrid Carlson, a pediatric eye surgeon, spent two weeks in April teaching pediatric ophthamologists surgical techniques, consulting with patients and observing surgeries in Myanmar and Vietnam with a group from the Hawaiian Eye Foundation. Photo courtesy Ingrid Carlson.

Dr. Ingrid Carlson, a pediatric eye surgeon, spent two weeks in April teaching pediatric ophthamologists surgical techniques, consulting with patients and observing surgeries in Myanmar and Vietnam with a group from the Hawaiian Eye Foundation. Photo courtesy Ingrid Carlson.

It started with a newspaper photo of a cross-eyed boy sitting on Santa’s knee.

When pediatric eye surgeon Ingrid Carlson saw the photo in a local paper during a Caribbean vacation in December 2011, she was inspired to act.

A 10-year-old boy, Kemon, suffered "woefully crossed eyes" and was bullied and teased at school in Grenada. Dr. Ingrid Carlson performed surgery in December 2012 to correct his vision during a humanitarian visit to Grenada.

A 10-year-old boy, Kemon, suffered “woefully crossed eyes” and was bullied and teased at school in Grenada. Dr. Ingrid Carlson performed surgery in December 2012 to correct his vision during a humanitarian visit to Grenada.

What has transpired since — including in the past few weeks — is pretty amazing.

Dr. Carlson, who practices at Mountain View Family Eye Care in Colorado Springs, knew she could help the boy and spent months figuring out how to put together a medical mission.

It took her six months of planning and coordination to clear bureaucratic hurdles, assemble a team of three nurses and an anesthesiologist, and acquire and ship a lengthy list of donated medical supplies along with her own surgical instruments.

Then, two days after Thanksgiving in 2012, the team flew to Grenada for an intense week treating children with crossed eyes, glaucoma, cataracts and assorted other issues. They saw 114 patients and performed 12 surgeries before the team returned.

 

Dr. Ingrid Carlson, a pediatric eye surgeon, showed slides of her medical mission trip to Grenada in this December 2012 photo. She led a team of three nurses and an anesthesiologist who treated 114 patients and performed 12 surgeries. Since then, Carlson has expanded her medical mission work to training surgeons in Southeast Asia. Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

Dr. Ingrid Carlson, a pediatric eye surgeon, showed slides of her medical mission trip to Grenada in this December 2012 photo.  Since then, Carlson has expanded her medical mission work to Southeast Asia. Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

I told her story a few weeks later.

But Carlson wasn’t content with that solitary humanitarian effort. She was determined to do even more.

Almost immediately she began planning to return to Grenada, a tiny island nation of 110,000 mostly poor people in the far southeast Caribbean Sea. She had learned there are no pediatric ophthalmologists between Miami and Venezuela and she was determined to fill the void.

I caught up with Carlson last week to find out the rest of her story.

Dr. Stephen Maher

Dr. Stephen Maher

It was even better than I expected.

No longer do children of Grenada rely only on Carlson to fly to Grenada. She has recruited two colleagues, Dr. Steve Maher of Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver and Dr. Michael Gray of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, to take turns treating children there.

“I called a couple buddies and convinced them to go in my place,” she said. “I’m making sure somebody is there once a year if it is not me.”

Dr. James Barad

Dr. James Barad

Thanks to another colleague, Dr. James Barad of Eye Associates of Colorado Springs, she no longer has to ship her surgical instruments in advance. Barad donated an entire set of older instruments that were shipped to Grenada for permanent use by visiting surgeons.

Still, Carlson was not finished.

She made a presentation of her Grenada experience to her colleagues attending the 2013 International American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus meeting in Singapore.

Dr. Michael Gray

Dr. Michael Gray

After her presentation, Carlson was approached by the director of the Hawaiian Eye Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has spent 30 years taking eye surgeons on humanitarian trips to Pacific island nations. Since 2006 the foundation has been training eye surgeons in Southeast Asia.

From the beginning, Carlson had hoped to train pediatric eye surgeons in the Caribbean so they wouldn’t have to rely on annual visits from U.S. doctors. But she learned there were no eye doctors to teach her surgical techniques in the region.

So she was intrigued by the Hawaiian Eye Foundation’s teaching trips and agreed to help.

And that explains how she spent much of April . . . teaching pediatric eye surgery, treating patients and observing surgeries in Myanmar and Vietnam.

Dr. Ingrid Carlson, a pediatric eye surgeon, spent two weeks in April teaching pediatric ophthamologists surgical techniques, consulting with patients and observing surgeries in Myanmar and Vietnam with a group from the Hawaiian Eye Foundation. Photo courtesy Ingrid Carlson.

Dr. Ingrid Carlson, a pediatric eye surgeon, spent two weeks in April teaching pediatric ophthamologists surgical techniques, consulting with patients and observing surgeries in Myanmar and Vietnam with a group from the Hawaiian Eye Foundation. Photo courtesy Ingrid Carlson.

“Whenever possible, I think it’s better to go train people in their own country to perform the surgeries rather than show up as the rich, white American, cure everything and then leave,” Carlson said.

“Instead of seeking local medical attention, people wait for the big ship to arrive once a year and it undermines the fabric of local medical care.”

Carlson said Vietnam enjoys far more advanced medical care than Myanmar, an emerging democracy after a coup in 2011 freed the country formerly known as Burma from a half century of military dictatorship.

A man holds his daughter as she awaits surgery on a tumor behind her bulging right eye. Pediatric eye surgeon Dr. Ingrid Carlson spent two weeks in April teaching pediatric ophthamologists surgical techniques, consulting with patients and observing surgeries in Myanmar and Vietnam with a group from the Hawaiian Eye Foundation.Photo courtesy Ingrid Carlson.

A Myanmar man holds his daughter as she awaits surgery on a tumor behind her bulging right eye. Photo courtesy Ingrid Carlson.

“Myanmar was behind the Iron Curtain,” she said. “There was so much more need there than Vietnam.”

In fact, Carlson said her team of nine was introduced as the first Western doctors to ever conduct training in Myanmar.

So what’s next for the globe-trotting medical missionary?

For starters, she is recruiting an anesthesiologist to join her Grenada team.

“We need somebody who is intrepid and willing to work with old equipment in uncertain circumstances for long hours and no pay,” she said.

And she’s still rounding up medical supplies —sutures, eye drops, instruments, surgical drapes — for future trips to the Caribbean.

Patients awaiting surgery in Myanmar. Pediatric eye surgeon Dr. Ingrid Carlson spent two weeks in April teaching pediatric ophthamologists surgical techniques, consulting with patients and observing surgeries in Myanmar and Vietnam with a group from the Hawaiian Eye Foundation.Photo courtesy Ingrid Carlson.

Patients awaiting surgery in Myanmar. Pediatric eye surgeon Photo courtesy Ingrid Carlson.

Beyond that, she’ll see what inspiration brings.

“This is a God thing,” Carlson said. “We didn’t plan any of this. We’re just following what God puts in front of us.”

Amen to that!