What started as strictly a volunteer role for Kristin (Paulson) Follman ’93, has turned into an executive director position for Haiti Eye Mission, a nonprofit organization in Fargo-Moorhead committed to transforming lives through the gift of sight.
“After beginning my volunteer involvement with Haiti Eye Mission in 2017, I became more and more passionate about the work we were doing in Haiti and wanted to be more involved,” Follman said.
In 2020, Follman began working for Dr. Lance Bergstom, the lead physician for the organization. In addition to being the mission’s executive director, Follman is now the marketing director for Bergstrom’s Eye Research facility in Fargo.
Follman splits her time 50/50 in her dual roles. She handles the marketing and study recruiting for the many ophthalmology clinical trials they run at the facility. She is also in charge of all aspects of running the Haiti Eye Mission nonprofit 501c3 organization. That includes all fundraising efforts, trip coordination, marketing, relationship-building with potential donors, procuring in-kind donations from pharmaceutical companies, and many other responsibilities required to take a team of 20-25 people to a third-world country to deliver a high level of medical care.
“We are growing the scope of our mission exponentially, so the time commitment has grown as well,” Follman said. “On paper, it’s a half-time job but, in reality, it’s much more. If the mission requires something of me, I will be sure it gets done; it’s a true labor of love. This is by far the hardest job I have ever loved!”
Haiti Eye Mission travels annually to Pignon, Haiti. An early team goes a couple of days before the rest of the team to set up everything, and the whole team is in Haiti for one week.
“In 2017 when I began traveling with the team, I helped as a volunteer in the triage area,” she said. “I helped with visual acuities and other assessments as we screened nearly 1,500 patients in a week. For the past three trips, I have taken the role of trip coordinator to oversee all aspects of the mission work.”
Follman’s list of duties is long and includes fostering hospital relations, coordinating schedules and registration of patients, ensuring every team member has what they need to be successful in their role, and anything else that may arise. She said if they don’t have what they need packed and shipped with them, they have to figure out how to make things work without it, so it requires a lot of creativity and thinking outside the box.
“We have been blessed with many surgeons that join Dr. Bergstrom, some from the Fargo area and, as word of our mission continues to grow, surgeons from across the country have joined our Haiti Eye Mission family,” Follman added. “We try to have between four to five surgeons on each team and have the ability to run three OR tables at a time.”
Several other Concordia alumni have made the trip throughout the years. This past summer, the following alumni traveled with the team: Dr. Corey Teigen ’86, Dr. Tom Strinden ’84, Luke Bergstrom ’22, Jacob Teigen ’22, and Jack Stensgard ’21.
“This mission is truly life-changing, not only for the people that have sight restored but also for their family members that are freed from the burden of caring for their family members that are blind,” she said. “Glaucoma and cataracts are at epidemic levels in Haiti due to many factors including poor nutrition and genetics. We are committed to curing and preventing blindness in Haiti through surgeries, medications, and eye health education for future generations.”
Follman said there are countless stories of individual patients they have helped through cataract surgery, ranging in age from 18 months to 99 years old. The youngest 18-month-old cataract patient’s mom was shopping at a vegetable market in her rural village when she heard a rumor that the eyecare team was in Pignon. She didn’t know if the rumor was true but, desperate for the chance to give her 18-month-old son back his sight, she used her last $3 to pay for the hour and a half motorcycle ride to Pignon.
“Our eyecare team had never operated on a patient so young, and when the patches were removed and he was able to see, we all fought back tears of joy,” she said, but added, “the emotional roller coaster is at its low when people come to see us that we are unable to help. If glaucoma goes untreated for too long, there is no way to reverse the vision loss.”
“When young teenagers are blind from a preventable disease, it breaks our hearts and fuels our dedication to not miss an annual trip, where we have the ability to provide a year’s worth of sight-saving medication to each patient,” she said. “We are the only source of eyecare in that region and thankfully we have not missed a trip, even through the pandemic and civil unrest in Haiti.”
The mission’s long-term goal, which is moving forward quickly, is to implement a year-round eye clinic in Pignon run by Haitians. They are in the process of identifying trained Haitian professionals that could fill those roles, and Haiti Eye Mission will support them educationally and financially remotely and on-site as they continue the high-volume patient care trips.
“We are truly transforming lives through the gift of sight,” she said, “and we are so thankful for the blessings we have been given to expand our mission work in the western hemisphere’s poorest nation.”
WDAY chronicled the work of Haiti Eye Mission. You can watch the documentary here.