It was a glimpse into what a world without eye care would look like. And, it made a lasting impression on the Students in Optometric Service to Humanity (SOSH) program.

A group of 21 students, led by Laine Higa, OD, assistant professor in the University’s Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), and Navpreet Hehar, OD, PCO instructor, traveled to Panama Aug. 10-17, to bring much-needed medical eye care to those living in poverty who otherwise might not have a chance to receive such treatment.

Optometry Students in Panama - Child
Working with the Kiwanis Club of Panama to provide services, the students saw 1,021 patients during the week-long trip, according to Dr. Higa. Because the country does not have any optometrists, patients must see an ophthalmologist in order to have an eye exam. Due to the limited number of ophthalmologists in La Chorerra, the country’s capital and one of the larger cities, where the students set up a clinic in the administrative area of a local hospital, many Panamanians don’t have the opportunity to receive proper eye care. The cost of services can also be expensive,  which many citizens can’t afford, and that forces many of them to lead their daily lives with blurred vision.

The trip not only reaffirmed some students’ decision to pursue a career in optometry, but it also helped build character.

Natalie and Child“This trip exceeded all my expectations and it helped mold the way I foresee my future in optometry,” said Natalie Baek, ’21OD. “The Panamanians, Salus PCO students and Salus PCO faculty all endeavored together to help those that do not have access to eye care. But the best part of the trip was coming to love the people of Panama. It was a reminder that it is truly a privilege to care for patients and be trusted with one of their most precious gifts – their ability to see.”

While there, Baek and the others met Ana Feherenbach, who Baek said made a tremendous effort to make the students and faculty feel at home in Panama. She prepared home-cooked meals for the group – like pancakes – so they wouldn’t get homesick, and worked tirelessly to make the students feel like part of her family.

“When I reflect on her laborious efforts in Panama during the short week we were there, I came to comprehend the deep love she has for her home and her people,” said Baek. “Even if a second opportunity to serve Panama did not arise for me, Ana would be the reason I would return to Panama.”

For Tyler Lesko, ’22OD, the only first-year student on the trip, the Panama experience was “unreal.”

“For the first time since I started school, I felt useful and like I was really making a difference,” said Lesko. “I learned how to use my skills in an efficient and clinically applicable way, how important it is for people who do not have access to medical and optometric care to receive the care they need, and I learned how to care and show compassion for people who really need our help.”

The impact the students were able to make on the patients was visible every day when they walked into the clinic they set up.

Optometry Student Giving Eye Exam“There was a line of patients waiting for us and they looked happy to see us. It was like we were heroes,” said Lesko, who will use the training and experience he gained on this year’s trip to help lead next year’s trip. “The people were so grateful we were there and that was the best feeling, to know that you have made such a difference and that it doesn’t go unnoticed. The impact this trip had on me will forever influence the way I treat patients and live my life.”

The service and people aspects of the trip weren’t lost on the instructors either. Dr. Higa shared a story about the impact one eight-year-old patient had on him. The boy suffered from nystagmus, a condition that causes constant movement of the eyes which the person can’t control, and the boy’s neighbor had brought him into the clinic. When the boy turned his head a certain way, his eyes didn’t move. The boy’s mother was in a different part of the hospital having her daughter checked for another illness, but was concerned that her son needed surgery for his eye condition and the family couldn’t afford it.

“We did all the testing and found that the boy’s condition was congenital,” said Dr. Higa. “So we were able to reassure the neighbor to tell the mom that there was no surgical intervention that could fix this. We tried to reassure them that although this was an abnormal finding, this was how he was born and that his own adaption is normal, although it may seem abnormal that he turns his head a certain way and gives people a side eye, it’s OK. But I was kind of sad about that one.”

The goal of the trip was for the students to see as many patients as possible. The majority of care the students provided were correcting refractive errors and prescribing glasses and reading glasses for those who needed them. The optometry students learned by volume, according to Dr. Higa, and how to complete an efficient eye exam with limited technology as well as how to think outside the box when one doesn’t have all the equipment one normally has in a typical office setting.

“This is good for the students because it exposes them to a different healthcare system, or lack thereof,” said Dr. Higa. “I’ve been to Haiti and I’ve been to Panama and there’s a lack of healthcare infrastructure in both countries. So the students get exposed to trying to solve a patient’s immediate concerns more so than the chronic management of things. It’s going back to providing the basics of glasses to make the activities of their daily lives easier.”

SOSH Group in Panama
Students participating in the trip included: first-year student Tyler Lesko ‘22OD; and second-year students Lauren Furicchia ‘21OD; Tyler Lesko ‘22OD; Afsana Amir ‘21OD; Marissa Ferris ‘21OD; Stephanie Sikora ‘21OD; Farhana Jui ’21 OD; David Bacho ’21OD; Madison Dunning ’21 OD; Caroline Krupa ’21 OD; Noor Ameiche ‘21OD; Kristen Kern ‘21OD; Kevin Arjune ‘21OD; Jiselle Alvarez-Granados ‘21OD; Samantha Spinnato ‘21OD; Kim Tran ‘21OD; Ngan Le ‘21OD; Natalie Baek ‘21OD; Mina Attia ‘21OD; Erika Saucedo ‘21OD; Ansu Bensen ‘21OD; and Sheila Mayani ‘21OD.

“Everyone demonstrated teamwork. We had a goal in the beginning to work hard together. The harder and better we worked together, the more patients we could see,” said Dr. Higa. “No one complained; everyone worked hard. That’s why we were able to see that many patients, because we were all on the same page with what our mission was, which was to see as many patients as we could.”