Dr. Richard Griffin recently returned from Bolivia. Again.
Griffin, 78, was 34 when he made his first trip to Bolivia. After 44 years, he lost count of the number of times he traveled to Bolivia.
“Oh, I guess 30 trips, something like that,” Griffin answered softly.
The gentle-mannered doctor is accustomed to the hectic pace of a busy ophthalmology practice. Griffin — born and raised in Hickory — was in practice with his father for many years, the late Harold Griffin. He continued in the family practice when his father retired. Then, Griffin signed on at Graystone Ophthalmology.
His Bolivia trips began 44 years ago, and they weren’t vacation getaways. Griffin went to Montero, in Bolivia, to work as an eye surgeon. The trips were mission trips, and there was no pay involved.
There was just the kind of pay a gentle-mannered, soft spoken, young man receives when an elderly Bolivian is able to see after cataracts are removed. Or, pay by way of the smile on a small child’s face and the light in a pair of eyes when a pair of glasses are fitted, and suddenly, a whole new world is opened.
Griffin first learned of the mission trips to Bolivia from a pamphlet written by the late Kays Gary, who was the first, Griffin said, to go into the area of Montero.
It was love at first sight.
“I thought, ‘Man, that’s a good thing to do,’ “ Griffin said. “I called the associate pastor at United Methodist Church in Charlotte — his name was on the pamphlet — and I told him I’d go.”
The mission team went to Bolivia to fit glasses, and Griffin did the surgery, which was mostly cataract surgery.
“There were a lot of people with crossed eyes,” Griffin said.
The first trip to Bolivia was an eye-opener.
“Montero was pretty primitive, and there were no paved roads,” Griffin said. “A generator ran from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.”
At first, procedures in Bolivia were rudimentary, especially sterilization.
“We had a pressure cooker and gas flame to sterilize,” Griffin said. “Now, there is an autoclave. During that course of time, early on, we recognized the need for equipment, so we sent a sterilizer, operating table and laser.”
When Griffin returned after the two-week stints, co-workers, friends, and fellow Lion’s Club members asked about the mission trip, patients and travels.
Soon, the word spread, and Griffin’s passion for mission work garnered much interest.
“People began to tell me they sure would like to go, so as the teams got bigger, we worked out of building sheds,” he said.
Mission trips outside the U.S. were part of SightFirst, a Lions Club International program that aims to treat patients in need of eye care. Grants fund the trips.
Griffin is a member of Lions Club Bethlehem, which collaborated with the Lions Club in Montero, Bolivia. The two clubs petitioned Lion’s Clubs international, and soon the medical teams had cartons of medical supplies, medicines, hundreds of eyeglass frames and medical and optical equipment.
“The plan was to set up a business for the Bolivians to run, year-round,” Griffin said. “They now have an optical lab and a trained optician.”
There is a tremendous need for glasses, most in people 35 and older.
Now, when Griffin travels to Bolivia, he has a clinic to go to rather than the primitive conditions encountered those first years.
Griffin isn’t sure why he continues to go to Bolivia. He said he likes to travel, and it’s a fun thing to do.
But, with his quiet demeanor, shock of white hair, and kind blue eyes, he has a heart for the people of Bolivia.
“We can’t do the kind of surgery we do here, but we do the best we can for the people there,” he said. “They travel a great distance, sometimes a day’s travel, to get to us. They are grateful for the glasses, and for the surgery. They’re very stoic and don’t cry or complain.”
Griffin retired from Graystone four years ago, and thus, is no longer operating. Because of that, he stopped operating in the clinic in Bolivia.
“It’s kind of like playing pool,” he smiled. “You never forgot how to play, but you lose your sharpness.”
Griffin, instead, does eye examinations and prescribes glasses if needed. He also determines who is a candidate for surgery. Olivia, his wife — who is also a nurse — runs the clinic.
“My right arm,” he said of his wife. “Drs. Trey Oursler and Richard Chang stay in the OR.”
Though Griffin retired, he’s busier than ever. Between mission trips, he volunteers at the Habitat for Humanity store, Hospice, and the Greater Hickory Cooperative Christian Ministry’s eye clinic. He also volunteers at the eye clinic for the Caldwell County Lions Club.
He admitted to often wondering what he would do with himself when he retired. He no longer wonders.
For 20 years, Griffin collected antique medical equipment. Now the museum-quality collection is for sale.
“It was a passion of mine,” he said. “But, now the antique dealer I bought from, I now sell to.”
A lifelong photographer, he picked up his camera again, and, thinking he might learn something, joined Catawba Valley Camera Club.
“I found out how bad a photographer I am,” he laughed. “It’s been a learning experience, I’ve learned a lot and enjoy the meetings and the people.”
After a hectic pace of life, work that kept him on his feet most of the day, and travels to Bolivia and other points, Griffin now seems to find a bit of respite and relaxation spending time with his family .... and, his cameras.
“Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I think of how to do photography projects, and I think about light,” Griffin said.