NEW SIGHT FOR THE BLIND by Ellen Donker
Updated: Mar 22, 2019
Local ophthalmologist gives back to the country that gave him his start.
Dr. Bernard Spier, a Maplewood resident and ophthalmologist with Northern New Jersey Eye Institute in South Orange, likes to tell stories. Some of his best ones are about his first years in medical school – not in America, but in Grenada, West Indies. Attending school there wasn’t exactly in the plans but his experiences made a big impression on him, prompting him to return regularly on missions trips to help the island’s underserved residents.
His connection to Grenada began in 1977. A Columbia High School graduate (class of ’72), he earned his undergraduate degree from Brandeis University and had hopes of attending medical school. When he wasn’t accepted to an American school (too much tennis, he claims), he worked in a pharmaceutical packaging job and began another round of applying to schools abroad. Although he was admitted to several, he decided to attend St. George’s University School of Medicine as a member of their charter class. At the time, the school was virtually unknown and Spier admits that it initially took him several spins of the globe to locate the island.
For this first-year student of a brand-new medical school in a tiny and poor Caribbean island, the going was rough. “We flew into a jungle and a caravan of taxis took 300 of us to the school,” recalls Spier. The students were housed in two barracks with no electricity and intermittent water. “It reminded me of F Troop with this little shack on the side that they called our lecture hall. They were like, ‘Here’s your medical school.’”
To say it was challenging is an understatement. Spier adds, “The fire department would come every few days and they would literally line us up and hose us down. Each person had to bring a bucket for them to fill and that was your allocation of water for the day. With that water you’d brush your teeth, drink, and whatever was left over you’d use to flush the toilet.” That’s how it was for the first six weeks. Two hundred students left after the first week, leaving 100 to stick it out.
Not surprisingly, Spier and his cohorts had concerns about whether they’d get a medical degree in these conditions. Slowly but surely, over the course of the next two and a half years, St. George’s became a legitimate medical school. According to Spier, it’s now the largest medical school in the world and, based on test scores and residency acceptance rates, the most prestigious foreign medical school.
Spier was determined to do his very best so he could transfer to an American medical school after two years. Sure enough, he aced part one of the national boards and transferred to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now Rutgers Medical School), eventually becoming an ophthalmologist and returning to South Orange to practice.
About 12 years ago, he heard about an ophthalmologist in New Jersey, Dr. Orazio Giliberti, who was putting a team together to provide ophthalmology services for the people of Grenada. Having experienced international ophthalmology in Nepal and China, Spier jumped at the chance to return to Grenada with his specialty as a cataract surgeon.
Spier explains that cataracts – a cloudy lens in a person’s eye that he replaces with a plastic implant – are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Although it’s a normal part of the aging process, it’s worse in developing countries like Grenada due to sun exposure. The need is particularly great as the island’s only ophthalmologist, now elderly, has stopped performing cataract surgeries, resulting in hundreds of backlogged cases.
The clinic is financed by St. George’s Medical School and the government. The school has helped erect an eye clinic to examine patients while St. George’s General Hospital provides the operating room space for performing surgery. Ophthalmologists offering varying sub-specialties visit on a rotating schedule for a week at a time. Spier travels there up to two times a year and the preparations can be daunting.
Fortunately, Spier recruited his scrub technician, Kristin Connolly, to join him eight or nine years ago. In the beginning she was intimidated by the idea of providing services in such a demanding environment, but ultimately fell in love with the work. She has gone enough times now to have a system in place for procuring and packing their many supplies – enough for 100 cataract surgeries.
Spier explains, “When you get to the island, that’s the fun part. You’ve got all your supplies. You operate. Getting ready is a ton of leg work. It’s not fun. Customs can also be a problem.” Connolly can attest to that. She’s the one who receives the donations from the many pharmaceutical companies (Alcon is the leading donor) and has to figure out how to pack them so they can take them on the plane. They’ve found out the hard way that shipping ahead of time is unpredictable
The ultimate packing challenge came when Spier got a YAG laser donated by the owner of Metro Ophthalmics, Charlie Beyer, who repairs ophthalmic equipment. Together they took it apart so it could fit in one suitcase. Spier used a series of videos that Beyer made to assist in reassembling it when he arrived at the clinic. It took a couple of days and a trip to the hardware store for some jerry rigging, but it worked and restored the sight to a 13-year-old boy.
Reflecting on his experience at the clinic, Spier says, “With cataract surgery the results are very dramatic. You literally take a person who is blind one day and the next day they can see. They’re elated. You never get tired of that. So, it’s very gratifying and fun.” Regarding his patients, he adds, “Grenadian people are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. So down to earth. Incredibly stoic. They’re very appreciative patients.”
While Spier’s first adventure in Grenada lasted just two and a half years in his early twenties, it produced a lifelong connection to the country. “I developed a soft spot in my heart for Grenada. It gave me my shot at being a doctor,” Spier says. Returning just seemed right.
Spier’s last trip was in April 2018 and he’s anticipating the date of the next clinic to be in November. In the meantime, he’s plenty busy in his practice. And he’s developed a new sideline: performing stand-up comedy once a month at Dangerfield’s in Manhattan. Guess what? Most of it’s about ophthalmology – and it’s really funny.
Ellen Donker never knew ophthalmology humor could be so amusing and looks forward to hearing more of Dr. Spier’s jokes on his YouTube channel.