Article Date: 11/1/2011

Operation Enduring Vision
reflections
THE HUMAN SIDE OF OPTOMETRY

Operation Enduring Vision

As a member of the Army Reserve, I was recruited to start an eye clinic in Afghanistan.

Ben Uhl, O.D.,
Le Mars/Sergeant Bluff, Iowa

I had been out of school and in private practice for less than two years when I got the call that my optometric services were needed for almost 400 days as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Although preparing to leave professionally was arduous, it was easy compared with departing personally. I would be leaving seven-month-old Elise, five-year-old Drew and my wife, Sarah.

My mission

In Afghanistan, three military optometry teams (e.g. one O.D., one tech and one optical fabricator) were designated to serve more than 130,000 NATO forces and nearly 75,000 civilian contractors. These potential patients are spread across more than 250,000 square miles, with main access by helicopter or airplane. My team, the third, was given the task of starting an eye clinic at the new NATO hospital at Kandahar Airfield. Our mission was to be responsible for meeting the needs of patients in more than 210,000 square miles.

Challenges

Despite our monopoly on the eyecare market, potential patients didn't know we existed. As a result, my team devised a marketing campaign to get the word out about our capabilities, the clinic's location, and that we were open for business. To accomplish this, we sent mass e-mails to unit commanders and liaisons, posted on soldier message boards and coordinated with the large network of medical personnel. (Most of the deployed medical personnel have limited equipment, supplies and eyecare experience and were pleased to hear from us.)

In addition, we developed a “house call” program to remote areas to ensure we covered our designated 210,000-plus square miles. Roughly once a month, we traveled via airplane, helicopter or armored vehicle to other U.S. operating bases with our equipment. The goal was to minimize patient travel by making the clinic more accessible.

Before long, demand for our services was high, so my team also started an on-site lab. This lab became only the second in Afghanistan and ultimately would complete 500 jobs a month.

Dr. Uhl places a pair of Lion's Club-donated glasses on an Afghani girl at a local orphanage.

Mission accomplished

Eventually, we had almost 3,500 patient encounters, and we divided patients into one of three groups: (1) combat trauma/urgent care, (2) flight physicals for helicopter pilots and crew and (3) soldier readiness maintenance with ballistic eye protection and spectacles.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working in a NATO facility is the interaction with other countries' medical personnel. The dynamics of different standards, expectations, treatment protocols, and, not to mention, languages proved no match for the common goal of excellent patient care.

Overall, it was a great experience. We built the foundation for a busy clinic, helping hundreds of service members and civilians each month and fostered important international and interservice relationships.

When I returned home, I was happy to find my practices had been well taken care of, though I was the most excited about getting reacquainted with my wife, the real hero, and our children, who all did amazingly well in my absence. OM


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

Optometric Management, Issue: November 2011