Local optometrist came to the U.S. as a Cambodian refugee and returns each year to offer health and eye care
DILLON — Unless you’ve seen the 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” the horror of the Cambodian genocide is unknown to many Americans. However, Dr. Wills Vanray, optometrist and owner of Lake Dillon Eye Care, remembers this dark part of history well. He lived through it.
As a child, Vanray was caught in the hold of the Khmer Rouge as the regime attempted to kill all of the educated people in the country. Vanray came from an educated family, which was quickly targeted. In Vanray’s family, 58 members were murdered. Vanray and his mother escaped by foot to a refugee camp in Thailand.
“We made it by total luck,” Vanray said. “We were shot at, bombed at … that’s why I have a passion to go back and help.”
When he was 10, Vanray and his mother came to Southern California, where an uncle was living. In 2006, he graduated from the Southern California College of Optometry. Vanray admitted he has an unusual optometry background as he chose to do a residency, which isn’t required of optometrists, in a hospital-based primary care and ocular disease program with the Indian Health Services in Gallup, New Mexico.
The goal was always to go into the medical field, he said, so in addition to fitting contacts and glasses, he specializes in ocular disease. During his work on the Native American reservation in New Mexico, Vanray also assisted in treating diabetic patients.
Vanray began practicing at Lake Dillon Eye Care in 2013 and became the owner of the practice in 2017. For the past six years, he has gone back to Cambodia for about one month every summer to donate his medical services.
“My goal was always to go back to Cambodia,” Vanray said. “I have a passion for impoverished people because I’ve been there. I’m glad I get to go back and help my people.”
When Vanray visits, he returns to where he was born, Phnom Penh, along with his wife Melissa Vanray, who also is an optometrist, and several other medical professionals and volunteers. The group stays in a recently built team center, which was constructed by LightBridge International and can house 80 volunteers. Each day of the trip, Vanray and his team drive to remote villages where people need medical care.
One volunteer this summer was Janet Graham, a local nurse practitioner. Graham said she has gone on mission trips in the past and was inspired by Vanray’s story when she met him.
“His story is so moving and touching,” Graham said. “… I met him on a chairlift, and he told me he was an eye doctor. It just happened last summer that I contacted them and was able to take two weeks off and go.”
Graham assisted in treating the common ailments of the local villagers.
“The Cambodian population is very prevalent to hypertension, diabetes,” Vanray said, adding that the volunteers also see a lot of need for wound care.
As for eye care, Vanray said he brings 500-600 pairs of donated prescription glasses and sunglasses to give people who visit the mobile clinic. The sunglasses are especially helpful because the villages are mainly farming communities and people work without sun protection for their eyes.
Vanray also gives out antibiotics for eye infections as well as multivitamins because the diets in the region are often low in vegetables.
“My five-year goal is to buy land there and build a permanent hospital,” Vanray said.
As a new dual citizen of the United States and Cambodia, Vanray now has the ability to purchase land in the country. He plans to bring local doctors, Thai doctors and rotating American doctors to his future hospital. His wife also hopes to build an orphanage next to the hospital.
In Summit County, Vanray also strives to help locals who are financially strained or don’t have health insurance. He gives discounted eye exams, contacts and glasses, and he will waive the contact fitting fee for locals who don’t have insurance.
“As the owner, if someone really needs help, and I can tell they are financially stricken, I’ll do the exam for free,” Vanray said.
Lake Dillon Eye Care also donates 10% of profits each year to LightBridge International, the nonprofit for which Vanray sits on the board.
“We do all we can to help out the community,” Vanray said. “It’s just a passion of mine to help those in need.”
Those who are interested in joining Vanray on his annual trip can find more information at lightbridgeonline.com.
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