VOSH 2023 Humanitarian of the Year Award Winner: Mark Rakoczy, OD

Dr. Rakoczy’s acceptance speech at the 2023 annual meeting on Sunday, October 16.

I would like to thank the Board of Directors of VOSH International for this award. It is truly appreciated. I would also like to thank my great friend and colleague Dr. Mike Satryan, who has been with me on ten clinic trips and shares a love of Haiti and its people.

You know, as we get older and have a good number of decades under our belt, it’s interesting to think back about how certain decisions, made along the way, make a big impact on who you are now and where you end up. I grew up in small-town America, a town of about 5-6000 people in rural Pennsylvania. My father worked in the coal mines for nearly 4 decades. I had an ideal childhood riding my bike, playing sports…think “The Wonder Years” meets “Leave It To Beaver” mixed with the movie “The Sandlot.” I didn’t have much exposure to the world outside of the United States, except for seeing the Vietnam War being played out on the television daily.

As a youngster, I loved to play baseball, and I would ride my bike during the summer months all around our two-mile-long town, my glove on the handlebars, just in case a baseball game broke out. I would be gone from 9 or 10 in the morning to later in the afternoon when it was time to go home for supper. Parents in those days didn’t worry about your safety.

My hero was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I still remember when and where I was, when I found out he had been killed in a plane crash, trying to deliver supplies to Nicaragua after a devastating
earthquake. He was known as a great baseball player and also a great humanitarian.

My favorite quote from him is the following:

“Anytime you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on earth.”

I think that speaks for itself.

So, after high school, I attended a branch campus of the University of Pittsburgh to save money by commuting the four miles from my house. I then made my way to the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in the big city of Philadelphia…and I mean BIG CITY, from my point of view. I heard about a student group called SOSH, Student Optometric Service to Haiti, which did mission trips to Haiti. I thought that would be an amazing opportunity. I had only been out of my state a few times, let alone to a foreign country. I was able to travel to Haiti in my senior year, 1981.

I thought Philadelphia opened my eyes; Haiti really did. Besides the optometric experience, the cultural and economic experience had an effect on me. I had seen poor people before but not real poverty…everywhere you looked. I always wanted to go back.

Well, life happened…marriage, a stint in the Army, kids, along with years in solo private practice. In 2010, my daughter Stephanie, who has a master’s degree in clinical social work, asked me, “Could we go somewhere and help some people?”

I knew of a VOSH group that was doing work in Haiti. I contacted the president, Dave McPhillips, and went back to Haiti with Steph, about four months after the major earthquake. I was hooked…so was she. She has gone to Haiti with me six times and has a tattoo on her side, the outline of the country of Haiti, in red. My wife Pam has also gone with me. Steph would still be going but stays home to take care of her own little ones.

So, some choices and some forks in the road: my hero was Clemente; going to PCO instead of New England College of Optometry, who had turned me down. The initial interviewer at NECO asked me what I was doing there when I had PCO in my own state. I think that comment sealed my fate. BUT, I would never have visited Haiti had I gone to NECO, and after forty years I finally forgive them. Being curious enough to join SOSH, and last, a daughter, who asked the right question.

And more recently, about five years ago, I decided to visit the VOSH booth at a Vision Source meeting. This is where I met Natalie Venezia in person. Prior to that, I knew Natalie only as an email contact for posting a clinic trip. I still remember that meeting. We seemed to have a great connection, and she asked me to consider being on the board of directors for VOSH/International. Eventually, she convinced me to be the treasurer. I do have to say she stretched the truth for what she told me the time commitment would be. I have had the opportunity to spend the last five years getting to know so many great people from all over the world, or who have been all over the world, involved with VOSH. It has been a blessing.

Thank you again.

Appendix: About the Haiti School of Optometry

VOSH/International was part of the original group of organizations that supported the establishment of the School of Optometry in Haiti. In 2021,
VOSH/International and VOSH-PA joined efforts to support students of optometry at the Université d’État d’Haïti represented by its VOSH school chapter, SVOSHUEH- FMPEO. This support focused on organizing teaching clinics for the graduating class of the school through a project called Je ayisyen (Haitian eyes). The goal was to support the students by improving their skills and confidence through supervised clinical practice with patients.

Students at work in Haiti.

With the deteriorating security situation in Haiti, it was evident that this support was especially needed as it has become almost impossible for students to have in-person optometry teachers or regular supervised practice with patients.

After the first teaching clinic, organized in 2022 at the New Hope Hospital in the north of Haiti, it was evident that more support was needed, yet the insecurity in Haiti delayed the implementation of the second teaching clinic several times. Despite these obstacles, the strong partnerships VOSH-PA enjoys at the local level made the second teaching clinic possible once again at the premises of the New Hope Hospital. This time, both VOSH teams were surprised to find the building of the new eye clinic completed. Dr. Eugène Makin, director of the hospital, with the support of various donors, including some of VOSH-PA, worked hard to have it ready.

This is a great step forward to offering regular eye and vision care to the population of this part of Haiti and represents a great motivation for the Haitian students, some of whom may end up working there. As this was a teaching clinic, the focus was on ensuring that each student saw enough patients, carrying out a full eye examination under supervision, receiving the support needed according to their abilities, and ensuring each patient received the best service possible.

Here, the students were finally able to offer their skills to help their community. A patient with bilateral no-light perception suffering from excruciating pain in his left eye, who had contemplated suicide, received
medication that would help his eye pressure and improve his well-being; a
four-month-old baby was found not to suffer from retinoblastoma, but from
cataracts that will be treated by the local Vision Plus Clinique; and just being able to prescribe the right glasses made not only a difference for many patients, but confirmed to the students the difference they can make as well.

A meeting by chance with Haitian-born Dr. Luckson Previl at the Cap Haïtien
airport resulted in the Haitian school and its partners being able to organize 4-week externships for the students that will benefit all students at the school for the foreseeable future.

Sustainability will result from local partners developing and strengthening collaboration in a manner that suits the evolving Haitian context. Our support to the soon-to-graduate and next classes will continue to complement what the school is already doing according to our capacities. Our aim is to ensure that future Haitian optometrists feel supported throughout their careers, find suitable work, continue learning, and support each other. VOSH/International and its chapters can provide such an enabling environment.

The teaching clinics for Haiti were possible thanks to a grant from Optometry Giving Sight (OGS), the Janet Chapman Muscarella Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation and several individual donors. We are grateful for their support.

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