boylookinginUMSL has one of the most active Student Volunteers of Optometric Service to Humanity (SVOSH) chapters in the country.  A large percentage of UMSL students become involved with SVOSH and ultimately take at least one mission trip to a foreign country. These mission trips – often one week in duration – typically provide care to 1000 or more patients.  Two of the most important reasons why the College of Optometry has such an active SVOSH program are Drs. Ellen Weiss (’92) and Diane Wilson (’88).

Both Dr. Weiss and Dr. Wilson have been profiled in the EyeWire before because of their remarkable selfless and caring nature, reflected by regular mission trips to help those in need.  Dr. Wilson, often accompanied by her son Jon Wilson (’19), makes one to two trips a year to Haiti or Guatemala.  Her practice, Arnold EyeCare Center, includes two other UMSL graduates, Drs. Carrie Riley (‘07), and Amy Schaag (’17).  Dr. Wilson is vice-president of VOSH Pennsylvania.  Dr. Weiss, a partner in Millard Family EyeCare in Omaha, Nebraska, is the Immediate Past President and a Board of Director of VOSH International as well as president of Nebraska VOSH.  Like Dr. Wilson, she makes annual mission trips.  One other important factor these two caring leaders share is enlisting the services of UMSL SVOSH students to assist with patient care.  For Dr. Weiss, it is a mutually beneficial experience. “I want a VOSH trip to be a learning experience for students when they join us. They are exposed to a lot of pathology in a short time frame. We saw a good number of advanced cataracts, glaucoma, monocular patients due to previous eye injury, keratoconus, and other diseases. We were fortunate to have eight optometrists on this trip, so the students were able to interact individually with the doctor they were working with. The group interaction and dynamics were ideal and the students’ work ethic and attitude commendable.”

 

HELPING THOSE IN NEED IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

During the week of January 5 – 12, 2019, Dr. Weiss led a group to the Dominican Republic that included seven members of the Class of 2020: Amanda Adkisson, Jessica Broodryk, Elizabeth Ditch, Olivia Hoylman, Stevi James, Kailey Utley, and Becca Weinberger.  This trip emphasizes not only the experience the students obtain working with a group of optometrists while helping restore sight, but also the ability to co-manage. Dr. Weiss explains, “Our trip primarily focuses on refracting and dispensing glasses and prescreening the patients for ocular pathology. We do have a slit lamp and BIO in the clinic. In March, a large group of ophthalmologists come in to perform cataract, glaucoma, retina, and strabismus surgery.”  Amanda Adkisson concurs that it was a great learning experience. “It was fun to work alongside classmates and learn from optometrists while serving the kind people of the Dominican Republic. I learned many clinical skills that I will carry with me for the rest of my schooling and career.”

Of course, there are those specific experiences that will leave a permanent impression. Elizabeth Ditch offers, “My favorite part of the trip was interacting with the local Dominican people and watching the facial expression of a 12-year-old 6.00 D myopic girl with 7.00 D astigmatism put on glasses for the first time and jump from CF 5’ to 20/25 on the VA chart!  Her visual world and ability to function at school will be completely transformed with the glasses.   I also enjoyed observing the different ways all of the doctors practiced optometry in a manner that played to their strengths but ultimately had the same goal of providing the best eye care possible to each patient.”

For everyone, a highlight was simply the impact they had on the lives of others . . .  a confirmation that their chosen profession can have a powerful effect. Becca Weinberger explains, “It was very humbling and wonderful to see what an effect we had on all the people that came for eye exams. Some of the individuals traveled practically all night just to see us. It was such a joy to see what a wonderful profession that we are going into and what a difference we can make in the world. Not only did we get to provide eye care to 1000 individuals, but we got to make new friends and connections with the amazing people that we worked with. I look forward to hearing about other mission trips and being able to serve on more in the future!”  Kailey Utley agrees. “Our mission trip to the Dominican Republic was an incredible, life-changing experience. To see the smiles on the faces of the patients as they were leaving was something I will never forget!”

 

HELPING PROVIDE VISION IN HAITI

It is very evident – as emphasized in this EyeWire – that the Class of 1988 is likely the most service-oriented class in our history. The efforts of Dr. Eric Stein are provided in a separate feature; likewise, with Dr. Tami Soriano.  Of course, Dr. Barbara Brown has always been one of our leaders in service to others.  Dr. Diane Wilson, however, may deserve a spot at the head of the class table. Her regular trips to Haiti, as well as Guatemala, provide vision to many thousands of individuals.  During the week of January 4 – 11, 2019, Dr. Wilson and her team of doctors and staff as well as College of Optometry students Sydni Davis and Kelly Deering traveled to Haiti to provide eye care to those desperately in need of their services.  For Kelly, it was an opportunity to do what she was both trained and called to do. “One Sunday, my pastor spoke about how we are all called to work and each have a career path we’re working towards. But he also stressed that, as Christians, we’re called to do “extraordinary” work for the good of those around us. Work that might not make sense to others. Going above and beyond. As an optometry student, I’ve poured myself into school thinking that if I try my best to be the best doctor I can be now, I’ll do great things for my patients in the future. But that isn’t enough. I realized I can be more generous and pondered ways in which I could do more extraordinary works. That night, I got an email from Dr. Diane Wilson asking for optometry students for her mission trip to Haiti. With this call on my heart, I emailed her immediately.”

The experience, as with our Class of 2020 members who traveled to the Dominican Republic, was beyond belief. Sydni Davis recalls, “In Haiti, they don’t have anything. You can’t go to Walmart and get whatever you need. You can’t turn on your faucet and get clean water. You can’t even flush your toilet most of the time. Despite living so simply, they are some of the most genuine people in the world. It was a pleasure to provide vision exams to these people that are used to living with so little so that they may see their lives more clearly. We were able to examine over 1,100 patients during the week I was there with our VOSH team, and it was a humbling experience. Many of the people we evaluated could not perform their trade without the simple pair of glasses we were able to provide.”  Kelly Deering agrees. “My time in Haiti was an amazing experience. I quickly fell in love with the beautiful people there. They were so grateful. We saw 1,113 patients, and we referred 30 for cataract surgery and 99 for glaucoma treatment. For five days, we drove into rural villages or deep in the city and saw patients. We took our equipment, drops, glasses, and sunglasses, and we set up stations to determine patients’ visual acuity, retinoscopy prescription, ocular health, and pressure readings. I saw so many pathologies that we, thankfully, don’t see much here in the states. I saw multiple completely cupped out nerves from glaucoma, a severe symblepharon from trachoma, bilateral pterygiums that had reached the corneal apex and impaired vision, a variety of cataracts in young patients, a completely luxated lens from trauma, and many more. One day, our clinic was directly adjacent to a school, so I helped screen 325 kids once our clinic slowed down a bit. I was struck by how many conditions I saw that are easily preventable and treatable in the US. I feel so blessed for all we take for granted here but equally guilty for every frivolous thing I’ve ever complained about. Many of these Haitian patients spend their days just trying to survive. I lost count of how many times the people thanked us and sent their blessing to our team and families. They believe God sent us to them, and I agree. Not only did I sharpen my retinoscopy and panoptic skills, but I also recognized the importance and our call as optometrists to use our gifts to bless neglected patients all over the world. I packed some soccer balls, colored pens, and nail polish for the kids I would see—and they loved these gifts! I also brought a Polaroid camera because many patients, especially in rural areas, have never seen a picture of themselves. It was so fun to love on these people and make fast friends. It was an unforgettable week. I loved the trip so much, I’m going back in November!”

Among the team that Kelly and Sydni worked with was Dr. Jane Shea (’90), a remarkable individual who would be worthy of her own EyeWire article. A single mother raising a young family and attending the College of Optometry while also meeting a regular military commitment, she graduated with high honors.  For many years she was an exceptional faculty member at UMSL, with students benefitting from her clinical and interpersonal skills and applicants appreciative of her caring nature. Most recently, she served as a staff optometrist for the St. Louis VAMC.  And she was a great mentor on this trip. Kelly shares, “I had many deep talks with her about her life and experiences. She is an incredible woman who has done everything she has put her mind to! I was honored to work with her this week, and I consider her a dear friend.”

janesheaandkelly

THE BOTTOM LINE

With selfless compassionate optometrists such as Drs. Diane Wilson and Ellen Weiss serving as excellent role models, in combination with a group of dedicated UMSL students, the opportunities presented by the VOSH program and the remarkable effect it has is nothing short of incredible. It can best be summarized by one of these students who is a veteran of multiple VOSH trips, Sydni Davis: “It is an honor to think that we changed lives. I am so grateful for the relationships VOSH has with many countries that enable us to travel there safely and provide optometric services. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, every optometry student should have the opportunity to go on an SVOSH trip, because as much as we get to change lives just by practicing our professional skills, these wonderful people are changing our lives, too.”

 

 

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