It all started with a pinhole camera.
When Larry Otten was in high school, he created one out of a coffee can in a photography class. The project taught him about the nature of light and optics, which caught his interest and led to a 36-year-long career in optometry. That career included owning Redmond Eye Clinic from 2006-12.
Otten retired in 2013 but that has not stopped him from working.
Since then, the Kirkland resident — who graduated from Sammamish High School — has gone on five mission trips, working at mostly makeshift eye clinics and offering his optometrist services for free to local (and some not-so-local) community members. He has traveled to Cambodia twice, the Dominican Republic twice and Malawi once. And come November, Otten will travel to Mexico for his sixth mission trip.
Otten was recently honored by the Kiwanis Club of Kirkland with the organization’s Everyday Hero award, which honors a community member for service they have given in various capacities that affects the lives of others in a positive way.
On his mission trips, Otten would usually set up in a local school, church or anywhere there is space available to perform eye examinations and ask the patients a few simple questions. From those exams, he is usually able to come pretty close to providing them with prescription glasses to fit their needs.
Otten said the conditions where the clinics are held are very rough and the only equipment he would have to work with was what he was able to take with him, including the prescription glasses he provides for the patients. In most cases, he would work all day until it got dark, as clinics would not have electricity. Only when he was in Cambodia was he able to spend a couple days in an actual hospital with patients in need of cataract surgery.
Otten’s clinics would be announced to the community prior to his arrival, giving people time to get there and oftentimes, he said the lines for the day would be 50 people long.
Partnering with others
The two times he traveled to Cambodia in Southeast Asia, Otten went with a group called Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity Northwest (VOSH), the local chapter of an organization whose mission is to facilitate the provision of vision care worldwide to people who can neither afford nor obtain such care. They traveled to Sihanoukville, where they worked for a few days.
Otten said his two trips to the Cambodian town — the most recent one being in January — were about two and a half years apart and during that time, no other group traveled there to provide eye care for the locals.
For his trips to the Dominican Republic, Otten was sponsored by Yakima-based Memorial Bible Church and part of a mission trip that provided medical, dental and eye care. On one of his trips, he worked at two schools in Villa Paraiso, performing eye exams for 375 students and 10 staff members. He said he became very efficient in examining about 30 people per hour.
When Otten traveled to Malawi, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa, he went through Action International Ministries. Unlike his other trips where he stayed in one area, Otten said on this trip, he went from village to village, visiting a total of 12.
Draining but rewarding work
From all of these mission trips, Otten has learned that giving something unconditionally and seeing others’ gratification returned so freely, is “just beyond description.” He added that as long as he is healthy, he plans to continue participating in these trips.
But as gratifying as the work has been for him, Otten said he has also learned to know when he has reached his limits. He said there have been times when he has worked until 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. without a break or eating lunch and would get dizzy. Otten was reminded of the risks of extreme fatigue, especially in these areas of high humidity, and the importance of taking breaks.
In addition to taking breaks throughout the day, Otten said the groups he has traveled with would also include a day off sometime during their trips — which are typically 12-14 days — for the same reason. During those days off, he has gone hiking in the jungles of the Dominican Republic, visited the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and visited a national park in Malawi.
Another challenge Otten faced during these trips was dealing with the fact that he could not treat everyone. He said during one of his trips to Cambodia, a father traveled from another part of the country with his young son to visit the clinic but did not arrive in time. Otten said the boy was crying and so he just pulled them aside to do a quick examination just outside the clinic. The boy had an eye infection and Otten was able to get him the medicine he needed.
Otten said since his retirement, he has also learned that he does not have to travel around the world to help others.
Locally, he has worked with organizations such as The Sophia Way to provide eye care for those who can’t afford it. He has also participated in free clinics in Snohomish County as well as the Seattle/King County Clinic. The latter is a four-day, volunteer-driven clinic that provides a full range of free dental, vision and medical care to underserved and vulnerable populations in the region.