Todd Schwartz 2014-03-12 05:37:56
Optometrist Greg Hagedorn of Kentucky has taken vision care around the world for 20 years, and his bags are always waiting to be packed. On the Kentucky side of a nearly circular, eyeball-shaped bend in the Ohio River, the town of Henderson sits about where the pupil would, looking southeast toward the Green River Valley. John James Audubon lived here two centuries ago, before he gained renown as a naturalist and painter. W.C. Handy lived here in the 1890s, before he became famous as the “Father of the Blues.” Today, the town of 29,000 is home to yet-to-be-famous optometrist, drummer and 30-year Lion Greg Hagedorn. While his ability to paint lifelike pictures of birds is limited, the 60-year-old is fairly handy with the Blues, playing in local bands. But he is better known, on four continents no less, for helping thousands of people in need see more clearly. From his tidy practice on 14th and Elm Street, Hagedorn has traveled to India, Africa, Central and South America—40 mission trips and counting, joining volunteer teams who take vision care to people and places where the things we take for granted in the United States are very hard, if not impossible, to come by. The taciturn Hagedorn is not one to bang his own cymbal, as it were—this story would surely have been easier to tell were he a lead singer rather than a drummer—but his friend and fellow mission-tripping Lion, Mark Klaver, is happy to make the case. “Greg is an exceptional individual,’ Klaver says. “He’s very humble, very laid-back—a great person to have on these trips. I don’t know anyone who devotes more time to mission trips around the world. Forty trips—so far—is a big thing.” Ask Hagedorn himself about what led him, two decades ago, to make such a long-term and encompassing commitment to helping people see better, from village to veldt, and he answers, “Oh, I just had an itch to get out of town.” Hagedorn was some 12,000 miles out of town, in India, when a case he remembers well showed up at the makeshift eye clinic. “A man came in,” Hagedorn says, “who’d had a cataract removed. In the U.S., he’d have had an implant put in as part of the procedure, of course, but that doesn’t happen for poor people in India. So he had very blurred vision. In our stock of donated glasses we didn’t have anything close to the lens power he needed—people just don’t use those egg-yolk-thick lenses in America anymore. So we had to improvise.” Hagedorn turned to the bedrock of American ingenuity and can-do spirit: duct tape. “We found three pairs of glasses,” laughs Hagedorn, “that together would add up to the correction he needed, took out the lenses, grabbed the duct tape and built him a new pair of glasses. They didn’t look very stylish, but he was very happy.” Making people happy is the reward for Hagedorn and all Lions. “You feel good when you can help someone,” he says, “along with feeling sorrowful that they had to see poorly for so long until we could get to them.” Tell City, Indiana, about an hour’s drive from Henderson, is where Hagedorn grew up and where he started playing the drums. “In high school, the football team was not calling for me,” he remembers, “and all the other guys were outgirling me, so I figured maybe being in a band would add to my stock.” His motivation for attending optometry school at Indiana University wasn’t quite as clear-cut. “I wish I had a better answer,” Hagedorn admits. “It wasn’t like I’d planned it or had a family member as inspiration or anything. I just wanted a decent profession, maybe something involving a license, and I wound up in optometry school. I have to come up with something more inspiring than that—it’s embarrassing every time someone asks me that question!” Inspired start or not, Hagedorn graduated as an optometrist in 1981, then spent a couple years working for a company in California, which “wasn’t my dream come true.” When the time came to start his own practice, he returned to Indiana. Unfortunately, his hometown didn’t need another optometrist. So he looked at the larger city of Evansville, which also was full up. That’s when Hagedorn looked just across the river at Henderson, where there might be room for him. He opened his practice in August 1983. By September, he was a Lion. “I didn’t know a soul in town,” Hagedorn remembers. “You can’t really go through optometry school without hearing about the work of the Lions Clubs, so I thought that might be a way to meet people. I had hair to my shoulders back then, so I thought all the older guys would probably hate me. Now I am one of the older guys.” Hagedorn’s practice grew, as did his appreciation for the Lions. “Being a Lion has been good to me for several reasons,” he says. “It’s just rewarding to be a part of something good, a part of something bigger than yourself. There are actually two Lions clubs in town—when I first joined we used to make fun of the other club as ‘the old guys club.’ I don’t do that any more! We’ve got about 90 members, including some younger guys. We’re doing OK, but these are tough times for service clubs. Not everyone wants to pitch in these days. But there are few better ways to make good memories.” A few of the memories from Hagedorn’s two decades of mission trips aren’t quite so good. Like the time in Honduras when his group heard nearby gunshots in the middle of night. Or the time in Ecuador when the group’s bus was stopped by people of questionable authority, and some money may well have changed hands (Hagedorn isn’t sure) before they were allowed to drive on. And sometimes the memories are simply open-ended, without a satisfying conclusion. “The downside of these trips,” he points out, “is that when the mission is over you go home and there’s no follow up. You just don’t know what happens to the people you’ve helped.” Or tried to help. “The worst one I’ve seen”—and more sensitive readers should be warned that there’s a bit of a horror movie scene coming—“was an older woman who walked into our compound with the globe of one of her eyeballs collapsed and laying out on her cheek. She was speaking in the local indigenous language, which was then being translated into Spanish and then into English. A lot was lost in translation, so we couldn’t figure out how it had happened. There was no blood, no bruising. But she needed emergency treatment far beyond what we could provide in the field. We were in the middle of Paraguay, hours by road from the main city of Ascension. All we could do was to get her on the next bus that went by—I have no idea what happened to her. The chances of her survival didn’t seem very good. Not being able to help her was a kick to the gut for all of us on the mission.” But with those rare exceptions, the mission trips, which are true team efforts involving many Lions, as well as a long list of vision care providers and others, have been joyful experiences. Hagedorn made his first trip in 1994, through an organization called Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH). It was a sort of “trainer mission’” to sunny Jamaica. “My mentor for these mission trips,” says Hagedorn, “was a Lion and electrical engineer in Owensboro, Kentucky, named Bob Merriam, who passed away in 2012. He probably did 75 missions over the latter part of his life. He told me about the program, and it sounded kind of adventurous. After a decade of building my practice I was ready to try something. It wasn’t completely altruistic—it was Jamaica, after all, so the play part of the trip was pretty good too.” Two years later, Hagedorn made another trip, and the rest is well-stamped passport history. “I really enjoyed it,” the never-married Hagedorn says. “After the second trip, I knew I was a little bit hooked. I began doing all the trips that money and time would allow. It just became a part of my life, like working out at the Y.” Only with daylong plane rides and more bug spray. Through VOSH, which has sponsored 25 of his trips, Hagedorn met longtime Lions and mission volunteers including Mark Klaver, with whom he’s been on two missions to Africa and one to India. In 2002, Hagedorn also began doing trips through Lions In Sight of California and Nevada, the mission group of Multiple District 4. A typical mission trip may include 12 to 16 people and as many as 4,000 recycled eyeglasses—many of which come from one of the Lions recycling centers across the United States. The team will be formed around three or four optometrists, along with two or three helpers for each licensed team member. Sometimes interpreters accompany the team, or they are recruited locally. Spouses and other interested volunteers (including at least three members of Hagedorn’s own club) occasionally go along. Hagedorn and the other volunteers generally always pay their own expenses. The goal of these missions is simple to state—less simple to accomplish. “We screen for the best vision we can provide,” Hagedorn explains. Mission volunteers do everything from dispensing and fitting donated eyeglasses to consulting on more serious vision problems or injury. It takes a lot of Lions, worldwide, to make these mission trips happen. The success of any trip, he has learned, is very dependent upon the organization and commitment of the local hosts, who are either Lions or volunteers from other humanitarian groups. Hagedorn’s only failed mission happened when the host couldn’t even get the group through customs. Most of the time, meeting great, caring hosts in the countries he visits is one of the most gratifying parts of the experience. Today, when he isn’t serving the near- and far-sighted of Henderson, or behind a drum kit with local blues bands (and even playing a country dance or two—“They feed you well and you make friends”), Hagedorn is readying for his next trip. “It’s a big world out there,” he says, “and there is need all over. It’s still an eye-opener for me that so many people in this world don’t see at all well for lack of simple vision care. I’m so happy Lions like me can provide donated glasses and volunteer help. I hope we can help enough to put ourselves out of business, but until then, well, I love going. Most of the people we meet are very gracious and appreciative, and it teaches you to never mistake people who are poor or uneducated for not being people of intelligence and integrity. Being in need doesn’t diminish a person’s character. It’s really good to see people helping people—that’s what being a Lion is.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Mission+Critical/1658703/200967/article.html.