Erika Serrato’s eyesight had been deteriorating for seven years.
When she worked outside, her eyes would become painfully dry and irritated, she said through a translator.
As her eye disease worsened, Serrato’s fears of blindness increased.
She was suffering from pterygium, an abnormal growth of fibrovascular tissue which extends from the “white” of the eye onto the cornea and eventually over the iris.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, a grateful Serrato sat in the waiting room of the Florida Lions Eye Clinic waiting for a checkup after surgery on her second eye.
This was the fifth time she had traveled three hours from Dade City to the eye clinic in Bonita Springs for assessments, surgeries and follow-up appointments.
Arranging transportation and finding a friend to act as an interpreter was not easy, but she was more than willing to do it.
The Florida Lions Eye Clinic is the only facility in the state offering free eye care and surgeries to uninsured people living at 200 percent or more below the federal poverty line.
Formerly known as the Bonita Lions Eye Clinic, it recently changed its name to reflect the greater geography of the clientele it serves, said its new Executive Director Tamika Seaton.
“We have had patients come from as far as Tampa, Miami and all over the region to see us,” she said. “They didn’t have any other options.”
Seaton is the only full-time employee of the clinic, which also has two part-time office assistants.
Medical services are provided by a team of 19 retired and practicing physicians who volunteer their time and talent. There also are 15 volunteers from the community who help with patient interviews and initial eye screenings.
Dr. Ben Martin retired from private practice in Cape Coral at the beginning of 2016. He said he was “too old to take up golf,” so he began volunteering with the Lions Clinic about eight months ago.
“I just like helping people and continuing to do what I’ve done for the last 50 years,” said Martin. “What else am I going to do?”
Dr. Lion Howard Freedman, the founding medical director, helped start the Lions Eye Clinic in Bonita Springs in 2008.
When it opened, the clinic shared space with the Lions Club’s thrift store, where patients waited in the front hallway. The clinic had just one examination room, and surgeries were performed in what is now a storage closet.
Today the clinic has a nice waiting room with a play area for children. There are four private rooms for patient screening and examinations. A surgery suite offers plenty of space to perform procedures and to store equipment and sterile supplies.
Longtime volunteer Diane Bauman said she remembers those simpler times.
“Everything happened in one little room by the front door,” Bauman said.
As a member of the Delta Gamma sorority, Bauman has worked with the blind and visually impaired since her college days.
She’s founder of Lighthouse of Collier Center for Blindness and Vision Loss and makes time to work at the Lions Eye Clinic several days a week.
“These people are so needy, and the doctors are so passionate and so compassionate,” Bauman said. “They see things they never saw in their private practices.”
Freedman has an endless supply of “stories” collected from the last nine years at the clinic.
There was the middle-aged woman who had lost her job, home and husband and was sleeping on a bedroll in the middle of the swamp.
“It made my day when we were able to help her,” said Freedman. He said the clinic was able to give the woman prescription glasses and readers.
Then there was the man who had suffered from diabetes for 20 years and was on his way to legal blindness from leaky blood vessels in his eyes. After treatment, the man was able to drive again and get back to work.
“It changed his life,” Freedman said. “If he hadn’t had the treatment, he would’ve lost all his vision.”
The doctor also recalled a time when he conducted free vision screenings for the homeless in Fort Myers. Miraculously, the box of donated glasses he brought contained the right prescriptions to match every need for the 30 or so homeless patients he saw that day.
“People don’t realize the level of need in the community,” Freedman said. “The people we see are the really, really needy people in town. If we can help them see better, it’s a good start.”
Seaton took over as executive director about four months ago.
She formerly was the senior development officer for fundraising with the Shelter for Abused Women and Children in Naples. Her new role with the eye clinic allows her to interact more personally with clients, she said.
“I’m really close to the mission,” Seaton said. “I see it. I touch it. I feel it. And I feel good I’m part of the team that keeps our doors open to provide these services.”
Since her arrival, Seaton has increased the clinic’s visibility through social media and a new website: fllec.org. She also has increased its professionalism by ordering scrubs for the two part-time staff members.
“I don’t believe just because it’s a free clinic, it has to be shabby,” Seaton said.
Her long-term goal is to open an endowment program to ensure the clinic’s sustainability in the future.
The clinic’s major annual fundraiser, the Eyeball Soiree, is scheduled for Dec. 7, at the Southwest Florida Event Center on Bonita Beach Road.
This James Bond-themed gala will feature casino games, music and a live auction.
The clinic welcomes donations of eyeglasses and is always seeking new volunteers, as well as ophthalmologists willing to volunteer an hour or two per week, Seaton added.
“If you can’t see well, you can’t provide for your family; you become sad and depressed,” she said. “Something as simple as eye care really affects the whole family and changes people’s lives.”
Do you know about our Annual Eyeball Soiree ?