Mass. OD wins VOSH humanitarian award

December 21, 2010

Joseph D’Amico, O.D., with one of his Latin American patients.

Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH)/ International named Joseph D’Amico, O.D., its 2010 Humanitarian of The Year.

Best known for two decades of work bringing eye and vision care to remote areas of Nicaragua and other Central American nations, Dr. D’Amico has also been instrumental in developing VOSH’s organizational infrastructure in New England and recruiting others to humanitarian optometry, according to VOSH International President Greg Pearl, O.D.

Dr. D’Amico has been directly responsible for introducing badly needed eye and vision care to remote areas of Nicaragua, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico as well as the eastern European nation of Armenia – often by forging innovative alliances and successfully recruiting a range of sometimes unlikely volunteers, Dr. Pearl said.

An active VOSH volunteer for more than 20 of his 47 years as a licensed optometrist, Dr. D’Amico is a veteran of at least 35 VOSH missions.

The organization annually presents its Humanitarian Award to honor a member for distinguished leadership, innovation, and public health practice or the transitioning of VOSH missions to permanent sustainable eye care clinics.

Dr. D’Amico received the award during the 2010 VOSH International Annual Conference in Las Vegas on Oct. 10.
 As a co-founding member of VOSH’s New England chapter – known as VOSH-ONE – in the late 1980s, Dr. D’Amico quickly organized a humanitarian eye care mission to San Juan del Sur (population approximately 18,500), a coastal town on the Pacific Ocean in southwest Nicaragua that, although popular among surfers and tourists, is populated largely by economically disadvantaged families engaged in fishing.

Dr. D’Amico learned that a local physician, Rosa Bella, M.D., who maintained a clinic in the town, wished to begin providing eye and vision care.

Dr. D’Amico was interested in part because Newton, a Massachusetts town near his home, is an officially designated sister city to San Juan del Sur. Students from nearby Williams College were recruited to help.

Constructing a lean-to on the side of Dr. Bella’s clinic to house an optometric examination lane, Dr. D’Amico quickly established what would become a permanent eye and vision care facility available to any VOSH optometrists willing to come and serve the local residents.

As VOSH ONE membership grew, spawning a separate VOSH Connecticut chapter, optometrists from the new affiliate increasingly took on duties at the San Juan del Sur eye clinic.

To date, VOSH members frequently travel to Nicaragua, assisted once each year by students from Williams College who receive credit for the humanitarian mission as part of an experiential education course.

Dr. D’Amico meanwhile began branching out to bring eye and vision care to other underserved areas of Nicaragua.
 “He has really specialized in providing care in remote locations,” observed Harry I. Zeltzer, O.D., VOSH International executive director and co-founder of VOSH ONE.

Among his more unique accomplishments, according to Dr. Zeltzer: the establishment of vision services on the islands of Ometepe and Solemente, located in the middle of massive (3,191 square miles) Lake Nicaragua.

He then set his sights on providing care in underserved regions of Latin American through VOSH missions to El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

In Belize, he not only led the nation’s first VOSH mission but helped to establish the profession of optometry, which is now taught at Belize’s medical school.

Many of the areas in which Dr. D’Amico and his fellow VOSH volunteers provide care can accurately be described as dangerous, Dr. Zeltzer acknowledges. Nicaragua was recently the setting for the “Survivor” television series.

In many places, “we have to watch what we are doing. We don’t go out at night. We don’t go out alone.” 

Particularly in unstable political environments, VOSH volunteers must be careful not to run afoul of local authorizes who sometimes suspect they may be trying to pass contraband across the border.

Nevertheless, there have generally been ample volunteers willing to join D’Amico’s pioneering VOSH missions and the annual follow-up missions, Dr. Zeltzer notes.

That is because, almost from the start, Dr. D’Amico has encouraged optometrists to become VOSH mission leaders, with many forming sub-state chapters dedicated to providing care at specific locations in the developing world.

VOSH ONE was organized with directors for each New England state specifically to encourage each state to organize a humanitarian mission each year.

It is also because Dr. D’Amico’s personal dedication to optometry and care for the underprivileged is infectious, Dr. Zeltzer says.

His wife, Zabelle, has joined him on virtually all of his VOSH missions and for a decade served as editor of the VOSH newsletter. A daughter, Jennifer D’Amico, O.D., and son-in-law Timothy O’Connor, O.D., have joined him in his VOSH missions as well as in his multi-location Worchester-area practice. 

(Dedication to the underserved through VOSH has not kept D’Amico and has family from developing a highly successful private optometric practice, Dr. Zeltzer notes.)

Another daughter has served as a translator during his VOSH missions; although Dr. D’Amico, after enrolling in a Nicaraguan language school and taking college extension courses near his office, now speaks fluent Spanish and seldom needs an interpreter.

Dr. D’Amico has also been able to consistently secure a steady supply of eyewear and ophthalmic supplies for VOSH missions, Dr. Zeltzer notes, in part by working with his alma mater, the New England College of Optometry, to establish an eyewear recycling program at Massachusetts’ Norfolk Prison. 

For year’s Dr. D’Amico has served at VOSH ONE’s “warehouse keeper,” storing hundreds of frames and other supplies at his family residence, Dr. Zeltzer notes.

And that is not the way in which Dr. D’Amico has literally “taken his work home with him,” Dr. Zeltzer said.

“The extent of his concern for others was perhaps most evident when, following a VOSH mission, when he brought a disabled Nicaraguan patient home with him so he could undergo foot surgery in the U.S. and spend a month at Dr. D’Amico’s residence recuperating,” Dr. Zeltzer recalled.

“For Dr. D’Amico, serving humanity is a way of life,” Dr. Zeltzer said.

Dr. D’Amico is a life member of the AOA.

For additional information on Dr. D’Amico’s work in Latin America, visit the VOSH-ONE Web site (www.vosh-one.org). For information on other VOSH initiatives, visit the VOSH International Web site (www.vosh.org).

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