One of my favorite memories as a kid was being able to go with my dad and a few other eye doctors on a humanitarian trip to Guatemala. At the time, I had very limited optometry knowledge but was able to help them provide glasses to the locals after they had received comprehensive eye exams – many of them for the first time in their lives. It was such a memorable experience and I remember thinking that if I ever went into optometry I’d love to many similar trips in my career.
My first opportunity came a lot sooner than I thought it would and in a way I hardly expected. Last fall, the AOSA sent out an email asking for applicants for a mission trip through Luxottica’s non-profit organization OneSight. They had agreed to pay for 25 optometry students to participate in a clinic in Tanzania. I had barely even heard of Tanzania but I knew it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
Early this spring, I woke up to an email from the AOSA President informing me that I was one of the 25 students who had been selected to go! I couldn’t believe it! I found out that we would be setting up a 5-day clinic in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in the 2nd week of May which luckily coincided with my break between semesters. There was a lot of preparation but after completing all my shots and visa application, I was on my way to Africa!
I met up with the rest of the group which consisted of 24 other students, 12 optometrists, and around 15 Luxottica staff from all over the country. I was immediately impressed with their dedication to optometry and their desire to serve. I really cannot think of a better combination of people to be with in that clinic! We set up the clinic which was located at a local university and met the local volunteers who would be translating for us. (Dar es Salaam is the largest Swahili-speaking city in Africa so we depended heavily on the interpreters all week.)
When we showed up to the clinic on the first day, there was an endless line of patients huddled under rain canopies awaiting their turn to be seen. We immediately went to work and took our turn each day at different stations including Visual Acuities, IOP, Dilation, Ocular Health, Refraction, Manufacturing, and Dispensing.
It was one of the first times that I saw patients in a comprehensive exam setting so I was a bit nervous at first, but I quickly got into a groove. It was incredible to watch the whole process of patients getting their health and refractive concerns addressed. Even though I had limited clinic experience at that point in my education, I felt very prepared from all of my labs and classes.
One of my favorite experiences came from a 50-60 year old patient I performed a refraction on who was a moderately high hyperope with a lot of astigmatism. He had a single pair of +0.50 glasses for reading and said that all he wanted was a new pair of readers to replace the ones he currently had. When I told him we could also provide him with a pair of glasses that would improve his distance vision he was perplexed. He hadn't ever had any complaints of his distance vision and thought he'd be satisfied with just readers, but thought it might be worth a shot to see if there was any improvement. I trial-framed his Rx and took him over to the open door. "This is how you are currently seeing the world" I said. Placing the trial frame on I then said, "This is how you could be seeing it." A very visible, very toothy smile immediately came across his face and he started pointing out things in the distance and naming them. Turning to me, he simply said "I like this!"
There were both hot sunny days as well as wet torrential downpours, but the line outside grew longer by each day. If I had gone to Tanzania and had helped only a handful of people to regain their vision, I would have considered it a success. However, we saw a total of 3528 patients all week with Thursday being our busiest day at 931! It’s certainly difficult to put into a single blog post all the experiences I had in Tanzania. It was a once in a lifetime trip with memories and people I hope to always remember. More importantly, it reaffirmed to me how grateful I am to be a part of a profession that is capable of empowering people with the gift of sight.