Dr. Joseph Ales, a Waterford resident and owner of Optik Birmingham, an upscale eyewear store in Birmingham, along with a team of eye doctors and nurses, will be traveling to Kenya next week and expects to see as many as 1,000 patients in three days. Ales, who has been on medical missions to Guatemala in the past, spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly the week before his trip overseas.
SCN: What is it that first attracted you to optometry?
JA: Actually, I’ve always been interested in going into health care. Optometry is a wonderful mix of medicine and wealth and fashion. It’s kind of an interesting mix.
SCN: Tell us about Optik Birmingham and how it differs from other optometry shops?
JA: I have a bit of an artistic sensibility, you might say. I like to draw and sketch. I have an interest in vintage (items) and I collect a bit of art deco things. When I acquired the shop, I had a few vintage frames and I wanted to differentiate my shop from others. That was like a niche I created, plus I really have a strong interest in vintage things. Vintage frames are well-made, they’re decorative, and they are real fun. So I continued that and have vintage accessories. I have a lot of one-of-a-kind product. I have a lot of product in my shop. The contemporary frames are well-made, well-designed and you won’t find them so much in the area malls. They aren’t necessarily super expensive, but they are real high quality craftsmanship. I try to provide something that no one else has, with the vintage frames, where you get a one-of-a-kind piece. And the vintage frames that I have are unworn; they are unused. The interior, the atmosphere is unlike others. It’s much more of a boutique feel than your standard (shop). You walk into a lot of optical shops, they all kind of look the same. Not mine.
SCN: Tell us about the trip to Kenya you will be taking, how long you will be staying, and what your mission is? What is it that inspired you to make this trip?
JA: I’ve done medical missions in the past to Guatemala. A good friend of mine who’s an opthamologist in the area, Tim Page, who works at Oakland Ophthalmic in Birmingham and Troy, has been trying to get me to go. He’s done some missions to Kenya, Africa and Darfur. This year I decided I could do it again. Starting a business 10 years ago, it’s difficult to get away because you’re really dedicating pretty much almost a couple weeks of your time (to the mission). Really, it was through his encouragement and I decided I could do it.
The mission will be doing primarily cataract surgery. There’s such a need. There are different groups that go out to this clinic through the year. One group may be (doing) general medicine. They even have a group that just does teaching. Plastic surgery. And there’s such a need for all these different things, so many people, that they split it up into these different groups. This time, we’re just doing primarily cataract surgeries and providing glasses and taking care of external eye disease. You can’t do it all.
We’re going May 12. It takes really a couple days to get there, maybe 18 hours, so we do a layover in Amsterdam and then it’s another eight hours or so from Amsterdam down to Nairobi. Then we stay overnight in Nairobi — that’s the capitol of Kenya — and then it’s about a seven-hour bus ride actually through the Rift Valley, where Dr. Leakey, I believe, found Lucy into this town called Migori, which is about 50 miles east of Lake Victoria.
We’ll be seeing patients for three solid days, so we may see over 1,000 people. There are about nine people from the Detroit area going — five opthamologists, me, some nurses, and some doctors in Kenya will be on the mission, as well. So it’ll be hard work. Just travel takes a lot of time. We’ll also be visiting the government hospital there, and we do like a day-and-a-half of safari, and we’ll be visiting the Maasai tribe, so there’s a little fun involved, too. So that’s the time.
I donate to different things. I simply do what other people do and write a check and send money, but it’s almost a selfish kind of a thing, I guess — just to be able to use my hands and my knowledge to help someone directly is just very fulfilling. People are just so appreciative. It’s just a life-changing and uplifting (thing) for me to help somebody else using what skills I have. Honestly, it’s going to another place and seeing another culture, so it’s interesting, as well.
SCN: How do you go about preparing for living in Kenya since it’s a different world compared to living in the U.S.?
JA: Thankfully, there are different groups that will help prepare you and the group we are going with has been doing this for 10 years, so we’ve gotten a packet on what to expect, as far as diseases. It’s already been set up basically by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) what kind of shots you should have, immunizations. You have to have hepatitis shots, tetanus, even polio, so you have to go through a series of shots like that. It will will not be too “mosquito-ly” there because we are in a high desert area and it won’t be too wet, but you still want to protect yourself from catching something like malaria. Then, going to places like that, like a third of the patients we’ll see will have AIDS or be HIV positive, so you just have to be really careful. You have to (be careful) anyway, in any hospital setting, but especially here. We’re really actually very careful. I’ve done this before, so everything is sanitized. Any kind of cooking is cooked thoroughly. You just kind of get used to it. This is my first trip to Kenya, to Africa. It will be my fourth medical mission, and really even going to Guatemala we had to be really careful of food we ate and water we drank.
SCN: What kind of procedure will you be performing on patients in Kenya and how is it done?
JA: Well, this hospital was set up and a lot of things — instrumentation, surgical microscopes — have been donated really from areas, hospitals around the country, and also companies. So I will be doing mostly like pre-op stuff — checking pressures, which is ocular pressures. High pressures cause glaucoma. Also, just a lot of pre-testing that you do before you do a cataract surgery. There are different measurements of the eye that you take. So this is, again, primarily cataract surgery. I’m not a surgeon, so I’m not going to be doing the surgery, but I’ll be doing the after-care, like the follow-up, and pre-care. Really, the technique that these doctors have to use are techniques from, you know, the 1970s. They don’t have some of the more sophisticated instrumentation. So it’s a little more challenging for them.
The eye is so intricate. We’re not doing retina surgeries or cornea surgeries or eye muscle surgeries; there’s just not enough time or instrumentation, and those are specialties in of themselves. So really, it’s all checking for glaucoma and working on people for cataract surgeries. There’s such a giant need for one thing — cataract surgery — that basically that’s what we’re primarily there doing.
SCN: If anyone wants to help your mission in any way, what is the best way they can contribute?
JA: Go to kenyarelief.org and, through that, they can basically find out what needs there are. Basically, there’s a need for everything. We’ve been given a list and it’s everything you can name, down to pencils. They also have an orphanage that this group has running. They have canisters — it costs about $15,000 a year to send a big canister to Kenya, to this area. You can load a lot up in a canister, so that would be the easiest way, just to go online.
SCN: What are your future plans in optometry and do they include expanding your business and more international outreach?
JA: Right now, I’m concentrating on my practice. We’ve actually been growing every single year. I’m actually very happy that my ideas for how to grow, especially in this economy, are working for here. But I’m interested and actually feel ready to expand, and possibly in the Detroit area, open another practice, but I’m very cautious about that. Right now, I’m pretty much a draw and a lot of people drive from even out in Ann Arbor, all over, to come to our shop because it’s kind of a one-of-a-kind place. And I do intend, hopefully, to be able to afford the time to go on missions in the future.