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Thomas Elmer, of Grand Island, has made eight volunteer trips to perform eye surgery on the blind in poor nations across the world.


Bringing the gift of sight to the poor

By Steve Brachmann
Updated: July 12, 2010, 6:36 am /
Published: July 12, 2010, 12:30 am

It has been said that if a person truly loves his job, he would be willing to do it for free.

If this is true, Tom Elmer loves his job 600 times over.

Elmer, 40, of Grand Island, is better known in Western New York as one of the partners of Fichte Endl & Elmer Eyecare of Amherst. But since 2003, he has made eight trips with volunteer medical organizations to poor communities across the globe, where he has volunteered his ophthalmology expertise to help those in desperate need of corrective eye surgery.

Working through Mercy Ships and Medical Ministries International, Elmer has made service trips to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Indonesia and Mexico. His latest trip was to Togo, a two-week volunteer mission that ended May 24.

“These people are the poorest of the poor,” Elmer said.

The procedures Elmer performs on these trips are similar to those done in his Amherst office, such as cataract or eye muscle surgery. The biggest difference rests with the conditions of his patients in poorer communities.

“In the U. S., I work on people whose cataracts make their vision a little blurry,” said Elmer. “Over there, their cataracts are so dense that they can’t even walk across the room.”

In 15 minutes, the amount of time it takes Elmer to perform most cataract surgeries, he can give sight to a person who has been blind from birth.

Elmer knew that he wanted to work in medical missions after earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame. Growing up, he had worked on service projects with Boy Scout Troop 299 and at Canisius High School, where he graduated in 1988. After finishing at Notre Dame, Elmer deferred acceptance to the University at Buffalo’s medical school to spend a year volunteering with Holy Cross Associates at a nursery school for underprivileged children.

Elmer also knew that he wanted to work with a program that somehow incorporated life on the open seas. Throughout his youth, he was a boating enthusiast.

This made Mercy Ships, his first volunteer group, a perfect choice.

On his past two trips, Elmer has been accompanied by his wife, Kristina. The two were married last July. On her first trip, Kristina volunteered as a nurse, but on this last trip to Togo she was able to volunteer as a chiropractor.

“She wanted to come back,” Elmer said. “It was really great to bring her back with me and have her experience my passion.”

One need not be a licensed medical professional to take part in these medical missions.

“If you’re a plumber, a carpenter or a world renowned surgeon, there’s an opportunity to volunteer,” said Sam Smith, CEO of Mercy Ships, who said the Africa Mercy currently hosts 450 volunteers from 35 countries with no paid staff.

Half of the volunteers make up the medical staff. Nonmedical volunteers include teachers for an on-ship K-12 school, cooks, water well diggers and the maritime crew.

Elmer said that the work he’s completed has been profound for him as well as his patients. “They had a blindfold on for years, and they finally get to take the blindfold off,” he said. “It’s rewarding just seeing the smile on somebody’s face.”