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Seeing is believing

A Tenafly family's excellent adventure

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Dr. Eddie Icaza (in surgical scrubs) and Funcrisa staff members accept school supplies from Bonnie, Corey, and Alex Notis. The material was donated by students and teachers at Tenafly High School.

How a Tenafly eye doctor and his family managed to make it to their medical mission in Ecuador is as much a part of their recent unforgettable adventure as is the trip itself.

In February, ophthalmologist and cataract surgeon Dr. Corey Notis, his wife, Bonnie, and their teenage son, Alex, spent four days in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s commercial center and most populated city, where Dr. Notis volunteered his services at a medical clinic for impoverished patients. However, a confluence of last-minute obstacles nearly derailed the trip before it began, and it was only through grit, good fortune, and a nail-biting mad dash that the family arrived in Guayaquil to undertake their sight-saving efforts.

The Notises tell their story: “As a family, we try to be philanthropic to causes that are important to us,” said Dr. Notis, who has practices in Springfield and Union, and performs surgery at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston. “A medical mission is something I always wanted to do because it’s a unique and substantive way for me to give back. It fills a niche that writing out a check can’t fill.”

Bonnie Notis, too, likes to give back through her profession. She is an interior designer who has donated her services to organizations including Brandeis House, the New York City alumni club of Brandeis University, from where her husband and older son, Max, graduated; the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, where she chairs the development committee and lends her expertise to enhancing and refurbishing public space; and Temple Emanu-El of Closter, where the Notises are congregants and where she oversees the design phase of a project to install 32 hand-painted stained glass windows in the daily chapel.

“I had never done a medical mission and was looking into how I might do one in Israel,” said Dr. Notis, who has family in Israel and whose mother was born there. “But an Israel mission wasn’t working out, and I was growing frustrated.”

About that time, an ophthalmic surgical nurse named Steve Velazquez, who works with Dr. Notis at St. Barnabas, told him about a medical mission he went on to Ghana last year under the auspices of Surgical Eye Expedition International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that works with disadvantaged people worldwide to restore sight and prevent blindness. The mission piqued Dr. Notis’s interest, but he couldn’t leave work for the two weeks a mission to Ghana requires.

“A doctor Steve knows at St. Barnabas had worked at La Fundacion Cristiana Para La Salud-Funcrisa, an eye clinic in Guayaquil under the auspices of SEE, and the idea resonated with him,” Dr. Notis said. “After he talked with me about it I said, ‘Sign me up.'”

According to SEE International’s website, at the invitation of eye surgeons in developing countries, and with the approval of local health and civic authorities, the organization recruits and deploys many small surgical teams, links volunteer ophthalmologists to host clinics in need of help, organizes the clinics, and provides most of the equipment and supplies they need. Volunteer eye surgeons donate their time and pay for all their own travel expenses.

Ms. Notis picks up the narrative from here: “We wanted to make the mission a family trip. But Max had started a new job and couldn’t miss work, and our daughter Melissa couldn’t take off from her pre-med studies at Emory University. Alex is a sophomore at Tenafly High School and had four days off during Presidents’ Week, so we decided to go from Thursday, February 13, through Tuesday the 18th.

“Funcrisa was a good choice for us because Guayaquil is in the Central Time Zone so we wouldn’t be affected by jet lag, the flight was relatively short at less than seven hours, and Corey and Alex both speak a good Spanish,” she continued. “We bought plane tickets for us and for Steve and were very excited to go.”

In preparation for the mission, the family began collecting supplies to bring with them. SEE International asked them to take several cartons of ocular lenses and other vital supplies and equipment donated by Alcon Labs. Alex mounted a campaign through the Spanish Club at Tenafly High School and collected school supplies for children served by a supplementary school held at Funcrisa in the afternoons, and his parents bought and donated additional school supplies as well as some two dozen hospital scrubs the clinic needed.

This is the part where the story starts to sound like a Hollywood thriller.

“On Tuesday, two days before we were supposed to leave, Steve received devastating news that his son had leukemia, and told us he would not be going on the mission,” Ms. Notis said. A surgical nurse is an important part of an ophthalmic mission team, and Velazquez’s participation was even more crucial because he is a native Spanish speaker and Dr. Notis was relying on him to translate when necessary. “We feared the clinic would not be able to provide us with a surgical nurse and a translator, and that we’d have to cancel the trip,” Ms. Notis continued. But on Tuesday night, the clinic confirmed that it would provide both.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Notis drove to Tenafly High School, picked up the supplies Alex had collected, and brought them home, noticing on the way that the sky was growing ominous and aware that an enormous snow storm was forecast. At home, she continued to pack and to box up all the supplies.

At around 5 p.m., Dr. Notis called. “Stop packing,” he said. Their Thursday night flight from JFK was cancelled because of the coming storm. “And since the next flight out wasn’t scheduled until Sunday, and Corey’s time slot at the clinic was scheduled to end on Monday, it didn’t make sense to go. We were heartbroken,” Ms. Notis said.

She stopped packing and began preparing dinner. But at 6:45 her husband called again, this time to say their travel agent was able to book them on a flight at 10:30 that very night. Could they make it?

“It meant I had to quickly clean up the kitchen, finish packing, and Corey had to get home right away,” she said. “Also, traffic to JFK would be terrible. We didn’t know if we could make it. But Alex said we’d come this far, how could we not at least try? So I stashed our uneaten dinner in the refrigerator, Alex and I loaded the car as best we could” – some cartons didn’t make it in and had to be shipped later – “and when Corey arrived we left.

“We got to the airport with a half hour to spare.”

But they couldn’t breathe easy yet.

They were now booked on Tame Airlines, Ecuador’s flag carrier. But by the time they got through security the Tame ticket counter was closed and they couldn’t pay the airline by credit card for the extra items they were bringing with them. Dr. Notis had to run to find an ATM machine in order to pay with cash.

Then, when they got on board, the flight attendant led them to the very last row, to seats that did not recline. Dr. Notis, at 6’3″, and his son, at 6′, despaired, fearing that they were in for a long, cramped, sleepless night, until Ms. Notis explained to the attendants that they were on a medical mission and her husband had to be fresh for surgery.

“They were so nice,” she said. “They let us move up to business class.” As the only non-Ecuadorians on the flight, they “felt like fish out of water,” she added.

In the meantime, nobody knew they indeed had left for Ecuador, and as they boarded – even as the plane backed away from the terminal – Dr. and Ms. Notis frantically made calls to let people know where they were. One call was to their travel agent to arrange for a hotel room and a truck to transport the cartons. (Dr. Icaza, at whose home the Notises would be staying, wasn’t aware they were coming a day early. He wasn’t expecting them yet.)

Their plane landed at José Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport at 4:30 Thursday morning. “We couldn’t believe we made it,” Ms. Notis remembers.

With Dr. Notis not scheduled to begin work until Friday, the family had all day to rest and walk around Guayaquil, which they discovered to be largely impoverished. It also is dangerous. Later, they learned from Dr. Icaza that they should not have gone out alone. “Kidnappings there are so common that they’re almost considered a rite of passage for newcomers, who are held up at gunpoint, taken to the nearest ATM to withdraw money, and left abandoned on the street,” Ms. Notis said. “They call them ‘express kidnappings.'” Dr. Icaza, they learned, drives an armored car with bulletproof tires.

On Friday, the Notises moved to Dr. Icaza’s home and went to Funcrisa for the first time. They were happily surprised to find it on par with similar facilities in the United States, and with a trained staff ready to assist Dr. Notis. Some 200 patients were waiting for him when they arrived -“all of them cataract cases, most of them complicated because they let the cataracts go for too long,” he recalled.

That first day, Bonnie and Alex Notis, both gowned, stayed with Dr. Notis in the operating room, watching him work. But beginning on Saturday, Ms. Notis helped with administrative duties and their son, whom his mother proudly says acquitted himself well in Ecuador with his high school Spanish, “to the point of filling in for a staff member who was absent one day,” learned to autorefract patients to prescreen them for optical defects. But she said that ultimately their role was to support Dr. Notis, who worked all day Friday, Saturday, and Monday, and nearly or completely restored full eyesight to 30 patients.

“After their surgeries, I would hear my husband telling them that their case went beautifully- ‘perfecto.’ The patients would grab his hands, thank him, and start to cry. Alex would tell me, ‘Do you know what they just said about Dad? That he’s the best surgeon they’ve ever seen,'” Ms. Notis said.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the mission came near its end, when Funcrisa’s staff gathered to present the Notis family with a thank-you letter from Dr. Icaza. “In it, he wrote about how we left our family, our work, and the safety of our nation to come on this mission,” Ms. Notis said. “‘The safety of our nation’ – that really choked us up. It’s true – people go on missions out of kindness, but it’s a dangerous world and anything can happen.

“We left Ecuador feeling good that we had done this, but we were very grateful it was the United States we were coming home to,” she said.

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