Not many college students would allow their fathers to tag along on spring break, let alone lobby for it. But that’s exactly how things played out last year for Carrie Wortham and her dad.
Carrie, a 22-year-old biology major at Virginia Military Institute, had long admired her father, Edwin Wortham V, MD. In private practice in the Richmond area for nearly 20 years, the pediatric ophthalmologist still prioritized his schedule to embark on medical service trips abroad.
Carrie was also deeply moved by the book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about renowned doctor and humanitarian Paul Farmer, MD, who worked extensively in Haiti. And later, when she heard VMI professor Maj. Tim Moore speak about his civil engineering mission service in Haiti, she was inspired to take action.
Carrie asked the VMI professor, What can I do to help? Moore’s answers ultimately led her to a Haitian orphanage in the small village of Hinche, called Maison Fortuné.
The college student, who is actually considering a career in medicine, called the offices of the orphanage and offered her services for a week. She was willing to do anything and everything she could to help. As daughters often do, Carrie shared her trip plans with her father, Dr. Wortham.
What happened next, surprised Carrie and Dr. Wortham, and virtually sealed the deal on what would become a lifechanging mission trip for daughter and father.
According to Carrie, she showed her father a picture of the orphanage on the Internet. The pair hunched over a monitor, and although the image was not the best quality, Carrie says her dad zeroed in on “a tall, skinny man surrounded by a group of Haitian boys. Then he said, ‘I think I know that guy!’”
Unknown to Carrie, one of the men she had contacted to plan her mission trip to Haiti was a regular patient of her father’s. “Although he spends most of his time in Haiti, he always comes back to Richmond for his annual eye exam,” Dr. Wortham said. “He comes to see me and he always asks me to go to Haiti.”
Carrie recalls hearing this, and says she felt like a door was opening wide before her: “I told him, ‘Well Dad, you’ve got to go to Haiti on spring break with me now.’”
Last March, Carrie and her father spent spring break in Haiti. The pair performed eye screenings for about 400 children who live at the orphanage and the staff members who take care of them. Dr. Wortham’s patient, the man he had originally identified from the picture on the website, was their host during the trip.
Dr. Wortham says many of the children at the Haitian orphanage were displaced by the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands. Some of the children had no family, and some had parents who had made the heartbreaking decision to drop them off because they could no longer care for them.
Carrie remembers how excited the children were to receive even the smallest gifts. “They just basically have the clothes on their backs and maybe a soccer ball to kick around, but otherwise they have no possessions. When we came down with a few toys for the boys and girls and some chips and candies, they really just went nuts over that.”
The country itself had a lasting impact on Dr. Wortham and Carrie. Dr. Wortham, who had been on mission trips before, said of Haiti: “The poverty is the worst that I have ever seen, and I’ve been to a lot of developing nations.”
Echoing her father’s sentiments, Carrie added, “I had been on one mission trip before in Honduras. I have seen Third World poverty, but nothing prepared me for what I saw in Haiti. Not only was it the devastation after the earthquake, but also because it’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”
Dr. Wortham was pleasantly surprised that overall the children were very healthy when it came to their eyes and their vision. He diagnosed several children and adults with cataracts or glaucoma who needed more care, and he was able to connect them to a local charity hospital started by Dr. Farmer, the very man whose eloquently written story first inspired Carrie to journey to Haiti.
When Dr. Wortham returned to Richmond, he was able to get about a dozen pairs of glasses made for the children at the orphanage who needed them, with the help of Stony Point Surgery Center. Then, in another serendipitous twist, a local pediatrician agreed to deliver the glasses to Maison Fortune when he traveled to Haiti about a month later.
Carrie was struck by the desire of the Haitian people to come see her father, because healthcare is so difficult to obtain. “Locals who were not associated with the orphanage just showed up,” Carrie said. “Somehow they had heard that there was a doctor at Maison Fortuné, and they came to see him and so at the first word of it, they’re there. They just flocked to him.”
Long before the earthquake, physicians have been called to do work in Haiti. Coincidentally, an associate of Dr. Wortham’s at Virginia Pediatric Ophthalmology Specialists, Natario Couser, MD, went for a week-long mission trip when he was in medical school back in 2003.
Dr. Couser joined a team of doctors, nurses, and a dentist, and set up a make-shift hospital compound. “Hundreds of people would be in line waiting,” said Dr. Couser. “Many were children, pregnant women, and elderly people who had walked an hour or two to get there. The people were just so appreciative of us helping them, even the children. It was definitely a rewarding experience.”
Looking back on their adventure, doctor and daughter both say they are proud of the other. What was the best part? For Dr. Wortham, working with Carrie was the pinnacle of the experience. He says he loved seeing his daughter so excited about finding a way to make a difference. When you ask Carrie about working with her father, you can hear pride and awe in her voice. She saw him in a different light as a physician and humanitarian who can truly change lives. Of her father, Carrie says, “My dad loves people, and he’s great with anyone he works with. He is always trying to really get beyond the superficial and get deeper than that. That’s what I admire in him, and what I definitely saw come out when we were down there.”
For her part, Carrie was so affected by the experience that she has decided to make this her life’s mission. She started VMI’s first international community service club and has already gone on another trip to work on a water sanitation project in Bolivia. She has scheduled another visit to Haiti in March and a trip back to Bolivia in June. Dad has already been given his marching orders. “He can’t make the Haiti trip, but we’re going to use his skills at the village in Bolivia where we built the water irrigation system.”
In addition to screenings, Dr. Wortham may do some eye surgeries on the trip this spring. He knows he will benefit as much as those he volunteers to help. Dr. Wortham says, “You find when you get back, you’re more touched than they are, and that’s inevitably what happens.”
With clear vision and strength of purpose, Carrie sums it up perfectly. “It’s not about me. It’s really not about us. It’s about trying to promote giving back in whatever way it is. You don’t have to go to the poorest country in the world. You can go in your own backyard.”