Unknown Illness Does Not Diminish Student’s Passion for Optometry

Kelly MorseAt the start of her third year of classes in 2015, Kelly Morse ’19OD began her school year as usual. She was working during her clinical rotation at The Eye Institute (TEI), the University’s Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) clinical facility, feeling a little under the weather, but still seeing patients. In just five days’ from that moment, her life was about to change drastically.

“I thought I just came down with the flu or something or I was under the weather,” Morse said. “When I wasn’t getting any better and my fever wasn’t breaking, I went home. Within five days of onset I ended up paralyzed from the nose down.”

Morse did not have the flu. In fact, the doctors were unsure what exactly was causing her deteriorating condition. Her body was attacking her central nervous system. Her brain was swelling. She could not breathe on her own. She still cannot remember a month of time, while she was in the Intensive Care Unit.  

“[The doctors] ran every test and couldn’t find anything,” Morse said. “I think it was because the disease was undetectable that they couldn’t pinpoint what it was. I think the consensus now is that it was some kind of virus, probably mosquito born, and it was just how my body reacted to it.”

Now, two years later, Morse is back at Salus PCO, determined to finish her optometry degree and begin a career she’s dreamed about since she was a child.

“I’ve wanted to be an optometrist since the third grade when I got my first pair of glasses,” she said. “I was a year away from graduating, why would I not finish this? Right now I just have one class and then I have boards and clinic. It was never a thought for me to not come back to school and finish.”

Unknown Illness Does Not Diminish Student’s Passion for OptometryWhile Morse may have recovered from some of the unknown disease’s effects, she remains wheelchair-bound. Faculty, staff and members of the University’s Facilities team have been preparing for her return to both the classroom and within the clinical setting at TEI. Recently, she was able to complete some of her classes online and slowly began seeing patients again. The construction of the University’s new Optometric Clinical Procedures Lab was designed to be wheelchair-accessible for both doctors and patients. While it was renovated a handful of years ago, TEI already had a few handicap-accessible examination rooms for patients, but Facilities renovated a specific exam room to be wheelchair-accessible for doctors as well.

“I was really impressed with how fast they got everything done and how innovative they have been,” Morse said. “The main problem was that the exam chairs were all really high. They were all at least 23 or 24 inches and the platform is another inch. I’m at 21 inches in my chair and I have a short torso.”

In addition to incorporating a lower chair into the room layout, the chair now also has a handle Morse can use to adjust the patient’s height, rather than the foot pedal used on other exam chairs. The new equipment and slightly revamped room has helped Morse regain her confidence while working with patients.

“I was a little bit worried that patients would be a little bit hesitant because I’m their doctor, and I’m in a wheelchair,” she said. “But now I can do everything on my own, and I’m more confident and I think patients will see that.”

PCO Dean Dr. Melissa Trego is impressed by Morse’s determination and passion to finish her degree.

Unknown Illness Does Not Diminish Student’s Passion for Optometry“We are honored to have Kelly return to her PCO family and will continue to support her any way we can,” she said. “We are proud of Kelly and look forward to the impact she will continue to make in the future with her patients.”

Morse is proud of her continued progress and hopes to further her education in public health upon her anticipated 2019 graduation. After her road to recovery, advocacy is something she would also like to pursue in the future.

“I couldn’t even feed myself and now I’m living on my own here and people think I’m crazy when I say this, but I feel like everything is back to the way it was before; I’m just using a wheelchair to get around instead,” she said. “I would really like to get a master’s degree in public health so that I could do advocacy and even help pave the way for wheelchairs in optometry.”