Article Date: 5/1/2009

Preventing Blinding Disease
reflections THE HUMAN SIDE OF OPTOMETRY

Preventing Blinding Disease

A summer job motivated me to start a nonprofit eyecare organization.

JENNIFER STAPLE
NEW HAVEN, CONN.

In the summer prior to my college sophomore year, I worked as a clinical ophthalmology research associate in Connecticut. While interacting with low-income patients, I learned that many of them had become blind due to undiagnosed and untreated glaucoma. Several poignant stories from these patients revealed that an array of barriers to eye care existed for them, including a lack of awareness about the importance of regular eye exams to prevent blindness. I realized that starting a community-based organization focused on eliminating patient barriers to care could help to prevent needless blindness.


PHOTO BY UNITE FOR SIGHT

Jennifer speaks with Kartee Karloweah, an ophthalmic nurse at a Unite For Sight screening in Ghana.

Beginnings

Unite For Sight was born in my dorm room at Yale University in the fall of 2000. From 2000 to 2003, it was a student organization that provided weekly community-based programs in local soup kitchens and libraries. A group of 35 student volunteers, including myself, connected community members with free eyecare services through professional organizations, such as the American Optometric Association (VisionUSA) and the American Academy of Ophthalmology (EyeCare America).

Since graduating from Yale six years ago, I've continued as the president and chief executive officer of Unite For Sight, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It currently has 90 chapters in North America based on the original model of the program, in addition to international programs first developed in 2004.

Worldwide reach

Internationally, Unite For Sight supports eye clinics by investing human and financial resources in their social ventures to eliminate patient barriers to eye care. All eyecare services are comprehensive, including year-round exams by local eye doctors, diagnosis and care for all treatable conditions.

Additionally, Unite For Sight trains local community members to be Community Eye Health Workers so that they can help educate their community about eye care and eliminate fear or misunderstandings about treatment and surgery. Unite For Sight's outreach programs include a team of local ophthalmic nurses, local optometrists, local coordinators, local translators and short-term visiting Unite For Sight volunteers (optometrists, ophthalmologists, public health professionals and students). These individuals bring eye care to patients in their villages on a year-round basis — whether they live one hour or eight hours from the nearest eye clinic. Further, Unite For Sight transports surgery patients to the local ophthalmologist at a partner clinic.

Thus far, we've provided eyecare services, including more than 21,190 sight-restoring surgeries, to more than 700,000 people worldwide.

The opportunity to make an impact each day on the lives of so many people is overwhelmingly gratifying. I frequently think about how, through Unite For Sight's programs, thousands of impoverished patients now have access to eye exams and treatment by local eye doctors.

To apply and share your eyecare skills, please visit www.uniteforsight.org/volunteer-abroad. Your involvement can ensure high-quality comprehensive care through the long-term. OM


DO YOU HAVE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE? DISCUSS YOUR STORY WITH JENNIFER KIRBY, SENIOR ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF OPTOMETRIC MANAGEMENT, AT (215) 628-6595, OR JEN.KIRBY@WOLTERSKLUWER.COM. OMOFFERS AN HONORARIUM FOR PUBLISHED SUBMISSIONS.

Optometric Management, Issue: May 2009