Optometry Students Provide Eye Care in Haiti

From August 9-16, 16 of the University’s Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) students who are members of Students in Optometric Service to Humanity (SOSH) along with Drs. Laine Higa, assistant professor, and Harpreet Minhas, instructor, traveled to Haiti where they provided nearly 1,000 comprehensive eye exams. The trip allowed students to provide humanitarian vision care to individuals who have never had eye exams before.

Optometry Students Provide Eye Care in HaitiEach day, the group would travel to a different village, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half away to provide care to those in need. Once they arrived, they created a makeshift clinic in a church or a school. After providing comprehensive exams, the students and faculty prescribed glasses and the appropriate medications available to correct any visual abnormalities. One the final day of the trip, the group saw the largest group of patients - 475, according to Jacky Ock '19OD.

"Although we were all exhausted by the end of the day, it felt amazing knowing that we were able to have helped so many people," she said.

SOSH president Melissa Chen ’19OD said the experience was very eye-opening.

“It was interesting to see that ocular diseases differ between the villages,” she said. “For example, in Sainte-Suzanne, Haiti we saw a high prevalence of end-stage glaucoma. We saw a 10-year-old girl with severely enlarged cup to disc ratios, indicating rapid progression of glaucoma.”

The ability to help those improve their vision is something Dr. Higa finds very rewarding for students and faculty alike.

“The visceral feeling of giving the opportunity of enhanced sight, whether it be to take out an advanced cataract or providing reading glasses, is truly unreproducible and is something every student should experience,” he said.

Each year since SOSH was founded at PCO in 1969, Salus/PCO students participate in a trip to an underdeveloped country. SOSH was created by PCO student Algernon Phillips, OD ’69, who organized the first mission in 1968. The SOSH mission was and is to bring needed medical eye care to people living in countries with poverty unlike any seen by students in the U.S. Since that first mission, SOSH members and doctors from Salus have traveled to provide eye care in locations such as Mexico, Central America, South America and South Africa. For the last five consecutive years, the team has traveled to Haiti.

To prepare for the trip, SOSH members start fundraising initiatives in their first year.  Some of their efforts this year included a car wash, bake sale, selling decorative pins, holding fundraisers at local restaurants, and receiving donations from alumni. To that end, Dr. Carlo Pelino, chief of The Eye Institute’s Chestnut Hill office, donates 90 percent of the proceeds from one of his books to support the mission.

SOSH Trip to Haiti
Dr. Higa said the experience truly helps students and faculty put their lives into perspective.

“The experience makes you realize how grateful you are with simple comforts and luxuries you would not otherwise think about until they are no longer available,” he said. “The astute student also realizes that material poverty does not equate to inferiority or unhappiness amongst the natives.”

Overall, Chen said the experience was very humbling for all involved.

“We are so lucky to be the ones providing eye care to people who have never had an eye exam before,” she said. “We can all agree that we will never take clean water or education for granted.”

Video Credit: Melissa Chen ’19OD