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New West eye doctor sees the world, helps the world to see

New Westminster eye doctor David Neima holds a binocular slit lamp to measure vision he takes on overseas trips to give eye exams to patients in third-world countries. It’s a portable version of the devices used by ophthalmologists in their offices. - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
New Westminster eye doctor David Neima holds a binocular slit lamp to measure vision he takes on overseas trips to give eye exams to patients in third-world countries. It’s a portable version of the devices used by ophthalmologists in their offices.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

David Neima sees the world and gives the world the gift of sight at the same time.

For more than 25 years, the New Westminster ophthalmologist has crossed the globe—China, Vietnam, Mexico and Africa—to provide free eye surgery, eyeglasses and surgical training. But what he’s given them he receives back many times over.

Like the time he went to Uganda with a team of eye care professionals. When they landed they found out there was some miscommunication and the group they were to help wasn’t ready.

Not to worry.

An Anglican archbishop knew of another area expecting doctors that had not shown up. So the next day they drove eight hours to a remote area called the Luweero Triangle, where guerrilla wars and resistance movements reigned during the 1980s.

“When we arrived there were around 500 people camped out on the ground who had been waiting for a week and they all came out and clapped and cheered,” Neima says. “For most people if you’re late for a meeting in Canada for an hour the whining you would get, but not with these people.”

On another trip to Uganda a woman brought her sister who had suffered severe vision loss because of measles. Her sight was so bad she couldn’t work in the garden so her husband kicked her out.

After Neima did the surgery and removed the bandages the next day she started dancing and singing.

“She was singing about all the colours she could see because she hadn’t seen colours since she was eight years old.”

Neima knew he wanted to be a general surgeon by the time he had his appendix out at age eight. He was on track to be one, when he saw a television show one day about an ophthalmologist helping poverty-stricken people in Latin America. It appealed to him so he switched specialties and became an eye doctor and has had a practice in Uptown for 27 years.

“I love it. It’s like seeing your friends everyday,” says the genial Neima.

But it was the comment from a friend that brought his focus back home.

In 1993 he told Dr. Michael Brear he was going on a mission to Lesotho in South Africa.

“Why are you going over there? Why aren’t you helping out here,” Brear said to Neima.

Everybody in Canada has access to eye care, he replied.

“Hogwash!” he recalls Brear saying. “There are lots of people over here that need it.”

Neima now says, “It took me a long time to learn that. I was ignorant of that for many years.”

He may have been blind to that reality, but his eyes were opened when he went to the Downtown Eastside.

“I was shocked. I saw all kinds of people going blind from glaucoma or going blind because they just needed a pair of glasses, but I didn’t know it. A lot of them don’t have decent health care at all ... There are lots of people that need our help out there.”

Neima also became involved in Douglas College’s optician dispensing program. He travelled with the instructor and students to Tijuana, Mexico where he determined the prescriptions and the students made the glasses.

It’s a program that has also been adapted here in B.C. He remembers a Maple Ridge woman, who had three kids with an unemployed husband, coming to see him because she had broken her glasses five years before but couldn’t afford to replace them.

“She’s just in tears when we told her we’re going to make a pair of glasses for her,” says Neima. “It’s not an uncommon story.”

All of the good doctor’s good work has not gone unrecognized. Last week, Douglas College bestowed upon him its highest distinction—Honourary Scholarship. Neima was surprised when the college called.

“I’m just one of the members of a team,” says Neima. “That’s why it’s a little embarrassing ... I’m only doing what I like to do.”

For more information on the organizations Neima works with go to www.emascanada.org and www.medicalaidforvietnam.org.

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