Fluvanna eye doctor provides free  surgeries in Haiti

Fluvanna eye doctor provides free surgeries in Haiti

Heads the Raising Haiti Foundation

Contributed by Jeff James

Lake Monticello and Fluvanna County attract people with almost unlimited experience in the arts, medicine, military and diplomatic careers, education, music, and more.

Sue Carlson, of Lake Monticello, has achieved remarkable things. She exemplifies the experience that fills Fluvanna on a daily basis.


Sue Carlson, M.D., a resident at Lake Monticello since 2007, is a recently retired ophthalmologist. While working full time at Kaiser Permanente for 28 years, she spent much of her free time and her vacations working with the people of Haiti as well as in other developing countries. She retired so that she would have more time to work with the people of Haiti. 

What inspired Carlson to provide pro bono eye

Since 1999 she has volunteered with surgical eye missions in Vietnam, Ecuador, Honduras, twice in Ethiopia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Peru, Bolivia, the Republic of the Congo, India and five times in El Salvador, India and Ghana.

Paying her own costs for each mission, Carlson has performed at least 800 free cataract surgeries for underprivileged patients who were legally blind prior to the surgery. 

“I have been blessed with many gifts and opportunities and feel that it is my responsibility to share my talents with others,” Carlson said. “When I traveled to the countries listed above, it was not to go sightseeing, but to help people to see. How cool is that?”

How did her involvement in Haiti begin?

Carlson has worked with and for the people of Medor, Haiti, through her church’s Haiti committee since 1999 and has been the chairperson of the committee since 2005. Her church, Our Lady Queen of Peace (OLQP), in Arlington joined St. Joseph Church of Medor, Haiti, in a parish-twinning relationship in 1997. Since that time OLQP has supported and cost-shared with St. Joseph parish various educational and health care initiatives.

Carlson first went to Medor as an adult chaperone for a group of teens from her church. She said she fell in love with the people there. All these years and 27 trips later, she said her heart is always with the people of Medor.

What is Medor like? 

St. Joseph parish of Medor is located in the Caho Mountains of rural Haiti. It is spread over 74 square miles and is inhabited by approximately 40,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers. The parish is composed of the village of Medor, and 12 chapel areas (the “suburbs”). There is no electrical grid, no running water or sewage system, no postal service or trash removal and limited phone and internet service.

Its roads are impassable most of the year, requiring a hike or mule ride to get there. It is 30 miles as the crow flies from capital city Port au Prince to Medor, but travel conditions are such that it can take up to 15 hours to reach Medor from the Port au Prince airport.

What has been accomplished in the 22-year
relationship between the churches?

In 1997 St. Joseph parish of Medor had only a primary school, with just 320 students. No one went to school beyond the sixth grade. Today the parish educates over 3,000 students in grades K-13, in Medor’s primary and secondary schools, as well as in primary schools in three outlying chapel areas. Dozens of Medor’s secondary school graduates now attend university – just a pipe dream 22 years ago.

The twinning relationship made it possible to build Medor’s secondary school, as well as a new primary school to replace the buildings destroyed in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

The secondary school has a solar-powered computer lab, and all secondary school students receive regular computer instruction. Students and teachers do computerbased research using “Haiti Internet in a Box,” a device containing educational material in Creole, French, Spanish and English. It is ideal for places like Medor with limited internet connection and few books.

The original church in Medor was small and could not accommodate the many people attending Sunday Mass. OLQP was able to help fund the building of a new church, which was dedicated in 2007 and has a capacity of 2,500. When aftershocks from the 2010 earthquake damaged the church’s foundation, OLQP applied for and received grant funding for needed repairs.

A number of programs have improved health in the area, and some have saved lives. All school children receive a school lunch, improving their nutritional status. Families are encouraged to participate in the Klorfasil water purification program to decrease water-borne illness. The importance of using a latrine is stressed, and 332 families now have household composting latrines called arborloos. Classes have been conducted on cholera prevention and treatment. Medor now partners with Haiti Air Ambulance, a helicopter service that transports seriously ill patients to a hospital. OLQP health care specialists have conducted five medical missions and nine eyeglass missions in Medor, and contribute to the pharmacies of two medical clinics run by nursing sisters.

The agro-forestry program in St. Joseph parish, paid for by OLQP, has transplanted 699,500 trees from eight tree nurseries onto the mountainsides since 2010, while teaching improved farming techniques and the care of the trees and crops. Participating farmers receive a tool to use in the tree nurseries and in their personal garden plots. There are sustainable bean seed and animal sharing coops. Farmers attest that the agro-forestry program has improved their livelihoods.

The solar energy program provides power for the rectory, church, convent, and parish clinic, as well as the computer lab. 

The successes of the twinning relationship between the St. Joseph parish of Medor and OLQP in Arlington rest on prayerful solidarity as the churches work together to improve Medor’s standard of living. All residents are encouraged to participate, regardless of religious affiliation. In each of the joint efforts, both parishes strive for sustainability. St. Joseph parish requests each shared program. Haitians do the actual work, from engineers who design earthquake-resistant buildings, to children who carry stones on their heads to the construction sites. Medor families contribute the funds they can afford. Over the 22 years of partnership, both churches have been nurtured as the two parishes love, pray for, and serve each other.

How many times has Carlson visited Medor?

Carlson has visited Medor 28 times and is currently planning another trip for March. When in Medor, she checks on the programs that OLQP shares with St. Joseph parish and works to strengthen the relationship between the two churches while enjoying the many friendships that she has nurtured there over the years.

Describe the Raising Haiti Foundation and its core project, the 3Legs Program.

When she retired in January 2017, in addition to working with the people of Medor, Carlson took on a new responsibility for Haiti: accepting the volunteer executive director position for the Raising Haiti Foundation (RHF). This organization supports the 3Legs Program, conceived by Haitian priest, Father Joseph Philippe.

The goal of the program is to sustainably empower rural Haitian communities to create wealth. Leg one encompasses a local grassroots organization through the formation and training of a local development committee (LDC). Leg two is human resource development by providing university scholarships to three secondary school graduates per community to study agronomy, veterinary medicine and business, with the promise to return home after graduation. Leg three includes local business formation using plans developed by the community’s LDC and university students, and seed money provided by RHF.

The 3Legs Pilot Project is currently underway in six rural communities, each having an LDC, and three students in their third year of study at the University of Fondwa, Haiti’s rural university. Recently, RHF announced the launching of the third leg in the 3Legs Pilot Program: a business incubator challenge. Each of the six communities’ uFondwa students and LDC members are developing a business plan for their community. This March the plans will be shared with a panel of business experts who will select one or more plans for funding in the community that developed the plan. The community’s LDC will own the business and any profits will go toward university scholarships and the initiation of other businesses in that community.

The long-term goal of the RHF is to enroll each of Haiti’s 572 rural communities in the 3Legs program, empowering Haitians to turn the tide against Haiti’s persistent condition of super-poverty.

What are the main impediments to faster growth?

The challenges in Haiti are many. Poor infrastructure – especially the lack of a road in Medor’s case – sets limits on some initiatives. Poor capacity on the part of RHF’s Haitian partner has slowed the 3Legs Program and is being addressed by hiring a Haitian project manager. Because of close monitoring, corruption has not been an impediment to the work. Without a doubt, the development in Medor and the communities in the 3Legs program could occur with greater speed if more funding were available.

Is there need for more money?  

For the last two years the Haitian government has made a minor contribution toward the operation of the primary school in Medor. Other than that, all the work done in Medor and the 3Legs communities has occurred without any assistance from the government of Haiti.

Contributions toward the work in Medor and to the 3Legs Program will allow the vital work described above to continue. For more information about how to contribute, email Carlson at the address at the end of the article. Contributions are tax-deductible.

What’s next?

A Haitian proverb says, “Piti, piti, wazo fe nich li.” It means, “Little by little the bird builds its nest.”

Slowly but surely, the work continues, both in Medor through the twinning between the church there and the church in Arlington, and in six other Haitian communities through the Raising Haiti Foundation’s 3Legs Program.

The work is embodied by the slogan, “Haitians transforming Haiti, one community at a time.”

Contact information

When she is not in Haiti, Carlson lives with her supportive husband, Dave, part-time in Arlington and part-time on Barefoot Lane at Lake Monticello. For more information on her work in Haiti, contact her at marysusancarlson@gmail.com.

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