They traveled long distances and slept overnight in their cars. It was cold, dark and it was a long wait. But when the doors of an elementary school in rural Warsaw, Virginia, opened at 6 a.m. the next day, they were getting help from hundreds of volunteers – including 14 third-year Doctor of Optometry students from Salus University – with eye exams that they rarely get.

“When I heard that people were waiting outside for hours, and overnight, to get an eye exam, that blew my mind,” said Jessie Vorachek ‘21OD. “I was very happy to help in any way that I could and to see how happy people were to get new prescriptions for glasses was a good feeling.”

Salus students across programs often participate in mission trips – to places like Haiti, Panama and Guatemala – in areas that don’t have regular or convenient access to healthcare. Those trips offers the students a chance to get experience seeing a lot of patients in a short period of time. But there are underserved areas of the United States as well, where people who need eye care can’t regularly and easily get it.

Helene Kaiser, OD '89, FAAO, PCO associate professor, and her husband Mark Shust, OD '89, FAAO, PCO adjunct professor, along with Jean Marie Pagani, OD '87, FAAO, PCO associate professor, were originally scheduled to do a mission trip to Haiti in May. But the unrest in that country at the time forced the cancellation of that trip.

Drs. Kaiser and Shust started looking for another way to get the students some experience and serve the public when they found Remote Area Medical (RAM), a nonprofit provider of free mobile clinics founded by Stan Brock – who in 1968 began hosting NBC’s Emmy Award-winning series “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” – to bring free healthcare to people in need. RAM’s corps of volunteers has treated close to one million men, women and children providing approximately $120 million in free medical, vision and dental care since its inception. RAM receives donations from individuals and companies and medical supplies are donated so it can continue its mission.

The husband-and-wife team did a RAM trip in May with just their family, to replace the Haiti trip, and learned that RAM had another clinic scheduled in rural Virginia during the first part of November. Dr. Kaiser asked the RAM organizers if she could bring students to that one and was told she could.

So the Salus PCO contingent – with Drs. Kaiser, Shust and Pagani - piled into two vans and headed to rural Virginia, arriving late Friday, Nov. 1. There isn’t much in Warsaw, and the students and other RAM volunteers virtually filled the town’s lone hotel.

The students started seeing patients bright and early on Saturday morning. One classroom at the elementary school had been set up for pre-screening, and another succession of three classrooms were set up for comprehensive eye exams including ocular health. Patients who needed a prescription received one, and there was a tractor-trailer parked in the school parking lot that featured an optical lab inside where glasses were made on the spot in about 40 minutes.

“It was fantastic for the patients because they had driven all this way. If we couldn’t make the glasses because the prescription was unusual, the patients would get the glasses mailed to them,” said Dr. Kaiser.

“There was actually one patient that we were able to send for emergency care at the local hospital for something we picked up during our eye exam,” said Victoria Shust ‘21OD, daughter of Drs. Kaiser and Shust. “It was amazing to see how well organized the RAM community was and how well all of the different clinics and leaders worked together to ensure that this woman was able to get the care that she needed.”

According to Dr. Kaiser, Salus PCO students see, at most, four patients in a day at The Eye Institute, the clinical optometric teaching facility. On this trip, every student saw 15 patients the first day. The group saw a total of 210 patients the first day and another 150 patients the second day.

“From the student perspective, it was good for them to see other people in need, see another part of the country and get a lot of experience,” said Dr. Kaiser. “The third-year students were experienced enough that they could do the whole eye exam. I was trying to let them do everything they could.”

Dr. Kaiser said the experience showed students the humanitarian aspect and how to give back to communities.

“These people really needed this. Some of them hadn’t had eye exams in five years,” she said. “They tend to go to that clinic every other year. If they miss a year, they’re waiting for the next one to come around. It really hit me on the very first RAM trip we took. I had no idea that people didn’t have access to things like that. But when you think about it, it does make sense. You can go to an emergency room and get healthcare, but you can’t get your eyes examined and a pair of glasses, you can’t get your teeth fixed in the emergency room. So that’s when it really hit me, and I thought it was such a good thing.”

The students also came away with a sense of giving back and being able to help those in need.

RAM-Kaiser-Crystal-Marissa.jpeg‘It’s one thing to learn about all the information in school, but to actually apply it in the real world is more exciting and enjoyable,” said Marissa Ferris ‘21OD. “The week before the event I learned about papilledema due to pseudotumor cerebri and in Warsaw, I actually saw a case of it. Being able to see it in real cases allows for the information of the condition to go into my long-term memory.”

“It was great to be able to work with fellow Salus students and faculty to apply what we have learned so far to help such a large volume of patients,” said Victoria Shust. “While it was difficult to see how many people are in need of care so close to home due to lack of access to insurance and rising healthcare costs, I was glad that we were able to make a difference for the patients that we saw that weekend.”

In addition to Shust, Ferris and Vorachek, other students who made the trip included Annie Goerl, Danielle Hester, Tessa Ives, Kristen Kern, Crystal Liu, Maura Nolan, Kara Rhine, Sabrina Steed, Stephanie Thai, Yubi Toledo and Amy Sumner Wherry, all ‘21OD.

“Not only were the patients benefitting from this experience, but I took a lot away from this trip, too,” said Vorachek. “I’ve never done a service trip like this before, so it helped me build on my skills and see unique findings first-hand that I’ve only read or learned about. This was a very eye-opening experience – pun intended – and I look forward to doing more in the future.”

Ferris, who did a similar mission trip to Panama with the Students in Optometric Service to Humanity (SOSH) program, said the Virginia trip made her more aware that medical help is needed in the U.S. as well.

“The Virginia people waited overnight in the cold just to ensure a spot for the exam,” she said. “It was equally rewarding to give back here in the U.S. as it was in another country.”