The UMSL College of Optometry is – and will always be – very service-oriented.  Whereas superior undergraduate academic performance assures an applicant of an interview, students are often admitted into the program as a result of a history of a high level of service and engagement.  To no one’s surprise, the UMSL chapter of the Student Volunteers of Optometric Service to Humanity (SVOSH) – an organization dedicated to serving the vision needs of the underserved in foreign countries – is one of the most active in the country.  In January, separate trips – which included many UMSL students as well as Dean Larry Davis – benefitted those without vision care in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Each mission trip was coordinated by trailblazing and mission-oriented UMSL graduates, Drs. Diane Wilson (‘88), and Ellen Weiss (‘92).

 

The Dominican Republic

Dr. Ellen Weiss is the Immediate Past President of VOSH International and the 2018 Heart of America Eye Care Congress “Optometrist of the Year.” She took her husband, Carl, and a large group of students and optometrists – including seven UMSL students and Dean Larry Davis – on a life-changing mission trip to the Dominican Republic.  For those students who provided vision care to a population desperate for this service, it was very beneficial.  Ben Wehner (’19) reports:  “Our week in the Dominican was fantastic! We saw a little over 800 patients, and I learned a lot about different diseases and conditions that don’t often appear in the US. Additionally, the patients were extremely grateful for the services we provided, which was absolutely fulfilling. I learned a lot about being creative in the exam room because of the language barrier, which I know will help a lot in the future when I encounter difficult or non-traditional patients.”  The ability to work with patients from another culture was an unexpected benefit for many of the students, as noted by Dustin Anderson (’19).  “The experience of interacting with patients of a different culture is invaluable. While I learned many things from my peers and mentors during my clinical experience abroad, the most valuable things that I learned were directly from the patients. The patients were extraordinarily patient, kind, compassionate, and genuine. This was entirely apparent as we often had to navigate through language and cultural barriers in order to complete examinations. I entered the Dominican Republic thinking that I would solely be doing my best to help out people in need, but I did not realize how much these people would, in turn, help me as well.”

The students were able to improve their refractive skills and take advantage of a large inventory of glasses, which they verified as part of their student VOSH member requirements.  According to Tom Hatesohl  (’19): “Retinoscopy was invaluable, and my abilities improved as a result of this experience. Using ret bars, we could quickly determine objectively if patients had a significant amount of cylinder.  For many patients, glasses had never been worn before or their previous glasses contained no cylinder correction. Frequently, the exit visual acuity of a patient was not 20/20, but the patient left happy because it was often a vast improvement over their unaided acuity. This was often the most rewarding aspect of working with each patient, as many were overwhelmed to once again be able to see clearly.”

Students were also provided with the opportunity to see a large amount of ocular disease.  Dean Davis relates: “For most of us, it was our first non-U.S. volunteer experience. Without exception, everyone demonstrated a commitment to provide what was needed for each and every patient who often waited several hours to be seen. As expected, students observed numerous and sometimes rare eye and vision abnormalities during the trip. Beyond that, the unfamiliar setting, different culture and language also provided ample opportunities for us to practice our affective and communication skills.”

And, of course, there is always that one patient . . . that one experience  . . . that is especially unforgettable.  For Tom Hatesohl it was this patient: “An experience I won’t forget occurred when a patient came in whose chief complaint was difficulty reading their Bible. A simple pair of reading glasses was all that was necessary to bring that patient great joy to once again be able to read easily.”

The consistent theme among the students was “life-changing opportunity.”  According to Sydni Davis (’20): “I was able to bring the science of what I love, vision, to a small part of the world that needs it, and with a team that has a huge passion for the cause. VOSH equipped us with the inventory to prescribe the best glasses, provided necessary examination instruments, and empowered us to make the difference in so many lives of the people in República Dominicana. As a student, being able to work alongside experienced doctors and utilize my skills for something so important was a highlight of my education and a personal life-changing opportunity. It is my belief that every single optometry student should have this experience at least once in his or her academic career.”  Dustin Anderson (’19) agrees: “My experience in the Dominican Republic is one that I will never forget. It allowed me to immerse myself in a new culture, enhance my clinical skills, and interact with many kindhearted individuals. I would strongly recommend a VOSH trip to anyone else who desires to learn more about the world, become a better clinician, and make an impact on the lives of others in need.”

1DRgroup
The entire Dominican Republic mission team

 

2DRstudents working
UMSL students at work
3Dustin
Dustin Anderson (’19) examining a patient
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Reunited at Heart of America.  Front Row (left to right): Kara Hoff (’19), Dr. Ellen Weiss (‘92), Tom Hatesohl (’19).  Back Row (left to right): Dr. Larry Davis, Carl Weiss

 

Haiti

Dr. Diane Wilson (‘88) has a long history of coordinating trips and may be the most service-oriented of the over 1,300 graduates of the College of Optometry.  In recent years this has included not one, but two annual trips to benefit Haiti, a country that has been ravaged by natural disasters.  These trips almost always include her son, Jon Wilson (’19), a third-year student at the College of Optometry who will most certainly follow in his mother’s footsteps upon graduation.  Dr. Wilson is particularly grateful for her UMSL student team.  “I am grateful for Kaj, Leslie, and Jon who were enthusiastic, hardworking, and provided excellent patient care.  In January our team of four optometrists, four optometry students, and three lay people provided eye care for 1,363 patients, and we referred 197 patients for cataract and glaucoma surgery.  Without the optometry students we would not have been able to serve as many people.  I’m also grateful to Jasmine Hayes and Krystyna Golden, who served on my November 2017 trip to Haiti.”

Consistent with the Dominican Republic trip, this was a life-changing experience as Kajane Murugathasan (’18) comments: “I had an amazing time in Haiti. It was an incredible experience to serve and help others in another country and use the skills and knowledge I have acquired in the past four years of optometry school. This mission trip really put things into perspective for me, and made me realize how much I should really appreciate my day-to-day life. Many times, we take things for granted until we see others that are so happy even if they have so little. The people of Haiti were so welcoming and appreciative of our services. Our team was awesome, and I can’t wait to go on more mission trips in the years to come.”  Leslie Kinder (’19) agrees. “This was the single most significant optometric learning experience that I’ve had while in school. Seeing this many underserved patients in such a short time allowed me to practice my clinical skills in a fast-paced environment, while receiving immediate feedback from the practicing doctors about any questions that I had. I learned to trust my retinoscopy abilities and identify many representations of ocular pathology. The experience also renewed my enthusiasm for patient care and reinforced my decision to spend my life practicing optometry. I would recommend that all optometry students make an effort to be a part of a VOSH/SVOSH trip.”

And for Dr. Diane Wilson, she has no intention to slow down in helping those desperately in need in Haiti.  “It is a life-changing experience for many optometry students.  They see how the rest of the world lives, and they get to experience the positive impact they can make on other people’s lives.  I’m currently recruiting optometrists and optometry students for my November 4th and January 4th VOSH missions to Haiti.”

 

5Haititeam
The Haiti eye care team
6leslieandfriend
Leslie Kinder (’19) and a friend
7Leslieret
Gaining expertise with the ret bar is Leslie Kinder (’19)
8Kajexam
Kajane Muragathasan (’18) examining a child

 

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