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Fort Smith optometrist sees God’s plan in his Arizona work

Dr. Eric Stein says he can make a difference for Navajo people in temporary job

Published: July 17, 2017   
Dr. Eric Stein visits with his dog during a July 1 trip home to West Fork. He will complete his assignment at Sage Memorial Hospital in Ganado, Ariz., Aug. 25.

FORT SMITH — In the past seven years Dr. Eric Stein, a local optometrist and a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Barling, has escaped death twice.

In 2010 he suffered Guillain-Barre syndrome, and, while in an induced coma, contracted an antibiotic-resistant staph infection called MRSA, resulting in amputation of his left leg. After 12 weeks in intensive care and seven months of rehabilitation, he resumed his optometry practice in Fort Smith. In 2013, he was involved in a bike crash and contracted a serious mucormycosis fungal infection at the wound site.

“The infectious disease doctor was able to get me into a clinical trial that would either do nothing, kill me faster or help me,” Stein said. “I had eight surgeries in seven weeks, and six weeks of experimental drug treatment through the University of Michigan, and I survived.”

After selling his optometry practice, Stein worked in a local eye care center but never had the sense of satisfaction he’d enjoyed practicing full-scale optometry and treating patients he’d developed long-term relationships with. He often wondered why God had given him two second chances at life.

“While I was in the hospital and rehabilitation I kept praying constantly, saying, ‘God, you spared me for some bigger reason. Tell me what it is,’”  Stein said.

The thunderbolt never happened.

“Finally, I decided by surviving and not quitting, showing up with my prosthetic leg, going to work, going to church, I was following God’s plan.” 

Stein had a gastric bypass in 2012 and began walking 5Ks, clocking a 28-minute mile with his prosthetic leg. His determination to continue practicing optometry and his commitment to an active lifestyle were an inspiration to his friends and family, but he still pondered his calling.

Last fall, he moved to West Fork (Washington County) with his wife Joan. He spent several months in retirement but soon grew restless. This April, he found a new challenge with a temporary job as an optometrist at Sage Memorial Hospital in Ganado, Ariz., an isolated Navajo village boasting only a gas station, an eight-bed hospital, a school and about 100 homes.

Stein said he is finding it very rewarding to practice full-scale optometry where he has an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

“The Navajo tribe is not a wealthy tribe to begin with, and at Sage we are dealing with very, very poor people,” he said. “I feel like it’s a ministry because the other eye doctor was completely overwhelmed. Alcoholism and diabetes are rampant in the community, and there is a huge teen pregnancy ratio, so my approach is towards the whole person.”

Navajos have a genetic predisposition toward diabetes, and many of his patients are poorly educated about how to control their disease. While he is taking patients’ retinal images with a fluoroscope, Stein talks to them about diabetes management.

“I tell them, ‘I used to have A1C (blood glucose) levels like yours,’” he said. “‘If you do nothing else different, go outside three times a week and walk 30 minutes.’ ... Their A1C level won’t be great, but it starts to drop.”

Stein’s quarters are located about a half–mile from the hospital, and he walks back and forth from work every day.

He attends Mass at St. John Vianney Church in Gallup and became friends with the pastor, who is paralyzed below the waist.

“I went to confession and told the priest I feel guilty being away from home, and he told me Ganado could be my hermitage, where I could read the Bible, talk to God more and build a closer relationship with him. I’ve been following his advice.”

His assignment ends Aug. 25, and while he is eager to get home to his wife of 20 years, his children and friends, he is open to taking a new assignment in a medically underserved area of the country.

“I do believe that being here, helping these people who otherwise would not get help as quickly is part of God’s purpose for my life,” Stein said.

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