Belinda Barker retired from teaching in Beaufort County elementary schools after 30 years, but she never stopped helping people. Not even when she was sick with pancreatic cancer.
During one of her stays at Ashley River Tower, her husband, Steve, told her about a patient two doors down. There was a large sign outside the door that read, ‘Patient is blind.’
“I walked past that room, probably 30 times, and never saw anybody,” Mr. Barker said. “I said to Belinda, ‘This poor guy. Can you imagine being blind and in the hospital and nobody there?’”
Mrs. Barker quizzed the next nurse who walked in the room, asking if there were any resources for blind patients, like books on tape. When the nurse said no, Barker said his wife looked at him and said, ‘Next time you give money to the Medical University, designate it for the blind.’
“She was a school teacher,” he said. “She was always trying to help people.”
Mrs. Barker passed away on March 21, 2015. At her funeral, her husband asked family and friends to remember her by making a donation to the fund he set up in her name to help the blind. He had no idea his own sight would be threatened just a couple of years later.
By March of 2017, cataracts were starting to blur Barker’s vision and he was scared to have them removed. “You know, I can see – I didn’t want something to happen, lose sight in one eye or something else like that.”
His fear also stemmed from seeing his mother have her cataracts removed decades earlier. “When my mother had hers done in 1955, they had to sandbag her head for 10 days,” he explained. “There weren't many people even doing eye surgery back then.”
The surgery used to require a two-week stay in the hospital, with sandbags to hold a patient’s head still while the eye healed. It is a vastly different surgery today.
“I did laser surgery,” Barker said. “I doubt that my surgery lasted more than 10 minutes at the most.”
After surgery, he could see clearly and found colors to be “much more vivid.” He was also presented with a new vision for Belinda’s legacy – creating The Belinda C. Barker Surgical Training Suite at the Storm Eye Institute (SEI).
The vision for the suite came from third-year resident Dr. Susannah Brown, who submitted a proposal to update the fifth-floor wet lab where every resident trains before performing their first eye surgery.
“The equipment we had was built in West Germany, and that hasn’t been a country for about 30 years,” Brown said.
In a field where techniques and technology are constantly evolving, an updated lab is critical for training residents and giving them room to practice their skills.
“There was only one microscope, only one resident could use it at a time, and there was no video link up so that someone couldn't even tell what that person practicing was doing,” said Dr. Andrew Eiseman, chairman of the Storm Eye Institute and the Department of Ophthalmology.
The renovated lab features a two-station training suite with new Leica microscopes and wall-mounted TVs that make it possible for everyone in the lab to see what’s happening under the microscope. Custom cabinetry and new countertops add much-needed storage. The updated space will also attract highly qualified candidates to the already competitive residency program at SEI.
“His gift will absolutely impact the learning of every single resident that comes through this program,” Eiseman said. “Every surgery they do a little piece of his gift will be with them, because that will stay with them forever.”
Brown said the lab, where future generations of eye surgeons will learn, is a fitting tribute for a teacher who wanted to help the blind. “The gift of education is one of the best gifts you can give,” she said. “Each one of us residents who go through this program will touch thousands and thousands of patients with an even better skill set because of this training center.”
The lab was dedicated in Belinda Barker’s name in December, with her son, Jarret, by her husband’s side. “Belinda has a son, my stepson, and a grandson,” Barker said. “When I signed off on this, I called Jarret and told him what I was doing. I said, you know, you and Colin can come up here and say, ‘That's my mother. She did this.’”