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Flying Doctors bring sight via flight

Auburn optometrist gives eye exams in Mexico
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal features editor
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An Auburn eye doctor returned last week from a weekend trip to Mexico, where volunteers set up an optometry clinic and helped more than 100 patients see better.

Dr. Robert Belajic traveled with Denny Freidig, chairman of the Auburn-based Los Médicos Voladores, or Flying Doctors. Freidig is also a pilot with the nonprofit group, which has about 500 members in six chapters across California, Nevada and internationally. Their mission is to serve 11 pueblos in Mexico, flying doctors, equipment and crews into the remote areas to serve the needy.

This trip flew to El Zorrillo, a tiny village outside of Ensenada. Spanish for “skunk,” El Zorrillo was built on top of landfill.

“‘Built’ would be a misnomer,” Belajic said. “It’s cardboard-metal-wood shacks put on non-improved lots. These lots are about the size of a postage stamp, with no water, no electricity and no sewer.”

Within the village is an orphanage, Casa Hogar Canon Buena Vista, where in fact there is a septic system, thanks to the efforts of another Auburn service group. Auburn Rotary completed a project in 2007 that installed the system after noticing a major problem during construction of a security wall at the orphanage.

“While we were doing that project, we noticed that raw sewage was leaking up to the surface from a failed septic system,” said Rotarian Bill Radakovitz. “The kids there were playing in the sewage.”

Rotary and Flying Doctors aren’t the only Auburnites who have helped this tiny community. Both chapters of Lions International here collect donations of eyeglasses, which are taken to Folsom Prison for cleaning, repair and sorting through an inmate program. The Flying Doctors took boxes of these spectacles to Zorrillo, where Belajic and his team matched, as best they could, the patients’ prescription with the glasses.

“A lot of the women are working in sweatshops, where they sew,” said Belajic, who saw not only orphans on this trip, but also people of all ages from the surrounding community. “If they’re over 40, 45 years old, they can’t see what they’re doing. Every one of them complained about pain in their eyes.”

He also treated a 2-month-old with conjunctivitis, a 14-year-old with a lazy eye and several cases of diabetes complications and cataracts. For the vast majority, this was the first time they’d ever seen an eye doctor.

 There are four trips scheduled to go to El Zorrillo this year, Freidig said.

Belajic pointed out that this was only his first trip with Flying Doctors; Auburn optometrist Dr. Tom Brenner has gone on many service trips. Brenner is also the director of optometry for the organization. Including Belajic’s son, Dr. Dan Belajic, three of the five optometrists for the organization live in Auburn.

“To get these ODs to step up and go in small planes with us to Mexico is very special,” Freidig said.

On this trip, volunteers set up the first optical clinic for the Flying Doctors. It’s full of donated equipment that was driven into the tiny community. The clinic, set up in a night, complements the dental clinic there – this trip also saw many dental patients.

Volunteers are needed in many medical disciplines, Freidig said, including dentistry, optometry, nutrition, physical therapy and chiropractic. You don’t have to be a pilot or a doctor to help out.

“We train them to become dental assistants, we train them to become vision specialists,” he said. “In Mexico they can do it, but they can’t in the states … we take anybody and everybody who has an interest, who wants to make a difference in a Third World country. We’ll take them.”

Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at krissik@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter, @AuburnJournalAE.

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Los Médicos Voladores
Gold Country Chapter
Meets: 7 p.m. first Thursdays in the Auburn airport terminal building
Info: www.flyingdocs.org; (530) 830-9194