It's been roughly a century now since Lions Club International members first began working to develop their eye health program, designed to help prevent blindness, restore eyesight and improve eye health and eye care for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
For the past 16 years, the Detroit Lakes Lions Club has been contributing to that mission by sending volunteers to Mazatlan, Mexico, every January, to bring free eye care to residents of those communities who would otherwise be unable to afford it.
About 10 years ago, they added Mazatlan to their itinerary, traveling down there every March to conduct similar eye clinics for the residents there. Detroit Lakes optometrist Dr. Armand Radke and his wife, Mari, have been making those annual trips since the beginning, and for the past few years, they have been joined by their son Phillip, an ophthalmologist and cosmetic surgeon - along with some of his colleagues from his alma mater, the University of Minnesota - to provide eye surgery services in addition to the vision clinics.
"We see about 1,000 people each year in Cabo San Lucas, and about 1,200 in Mazatlan," says Dr. Radke. "Of those, there are usually between 40-50 people who need surgery (at each site)."
But of course, getting all the eye care and surgical equipment necessary for those clinics down to Mexico every year costs money, so the Lions Club will once again be hosting their annual geranium fundraiser on May 9, 10 and 11 at St. Luke's Episcopal Church (1400 Corbett Road, Detroit Lakes) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
"We'll be selling 12-inch pots of geraniums from Bergen's for $25 each," Radke said, adding that those who would like to order a geranium planter in advance can contact the Radkes at 218-846-1949 or 218-234-6556 (Armand's cell phone) through Tuesday, May 7.
Lions clubs in both Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas aid the volunteers in their endeavors, through a "twin club" arrangement with the Detroit Lakes club that enables the travelers to provide eye care without the need to obtain a work visa, Radke said.
The first week is spent examining patients and fitting eyeglasses for the ones who need vision correction, as well as which ones are potential candidates for surgery. At the Lions' District 5M9 midwinter convention, held in January, clubs from throughout the district bring in the "gently" used eyeglasses they have collected in their communities, which are then sent to Detroit Lakes for sorting.
"We ship them to Mexico ahead of time so they're waiting for us when we get there," Radke said of the donated eyeglasses. "We usually ship about 4,000 pairs."
The eye surgeons come to Mexico for the second week of the mission trip, Radke said. Those patients who have been referred for possible surgery are then examined a second time, to determine what type of surgery will be necessary - for cataracts, detached retinas, etc. - before they do the procedures.
Radke said that he had an opportunity earlier this year to attend an international corneal and anterior eye conference held at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, Florida, where he met one of the premier eye surgeons in the country, Dr. Guillermo Amescua.
"He gave me a tour (of the Institute) and we talked about our work in Mexico," said Radke, adding that Amescua has done similar mission work there. "We learned from him that in order to do eye surgery in Mexico you need to have a Mexican eye surgeon there (in the operating room) with you. It's a requirement. We also need to notify the government of the surgery... but that is handled through the Lions Club."
Radke said that Amescua also suggested that they rent the surgical and eye equipment they would need, in Mexico, rather than transporting it there. So during their most recent trip to Mazatlan, the Radkes met with a local eye surgeon, and he said this was something that could be arranged.
"That way, the instruments are current, in working order, and you don't have to worry about transporting or maintaining them," Radke said.
Because eye surgery has been added to their mission work, each trip now takes about 3-4 weeks instead of just one or two.
"After they do the surgery, the following week we do post-operative care with each patient to make sure everything went well, and get them some eyeglasses," Radke explained.
Though it can be more than a little hectic, and physically draining, the patients' reactions are more than sufficient reward, he says.
"The people we see... they put on a pair of glasses, and suddenly they're able to see leaves on the trees, or cars on the street - so they don't have to listen out for them to get across the street," said Radke, adding that the Lions clubs in Mexico and Minnesota have formed some close connections over the years - and he also counts some of his patients as good friends.
"We have friends in Mazatlan who have had children that call us (Mari and himself) aunt and uncle," Radke said. "It's like a large family."