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The Gift of Sight

The Southern College of Optometry sends volunteers to help the needy abroad.

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Southern College of Optometry student Molly Barber says she had a touching moment last summer in Costa Rica when she fitted a near-blind 12-year-old girl with proper prescription eyeglasses.

"Her world was probably three inches in front of her before," says Barber. "When we put the glasses on, she could see everything for the first time. It was very exciting to see that and watch her tears."

In many third-world countries, impoverished residents don't have access to affordable medical care, much less affordable vision care. But for the past 28 years, a group of students from the Southern College of Optometry (SCO) in Midtown has been traveling overseas to provide cheap eye exams and prescription glasses to the needy through Student Volunteers in Optometric Service to Humanity (SVOSH). SVOSH got its start in 1975 after then-SCO student Donald Holbrook visited his father in Costa Rica and noticed the visual problems experienced by the rural poor. SVOSH has since spread to 16 other optometry schools across the country.

The organization, which is fund-raising for its next set of trips to Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, Jamaica, and Belize, divides members into teams of seven students and two doctors. The Lion's Club, a worldwide service organization, helps host the events, provides some funding for the trips, and donates glasses (which are also donated by local churches and optometrists).

"We try to do a full eye exam for each patient," says Barber, the current SVOSH president. "We have the typical eye charts with the big "E" up top. We try to do a comprehensive exam with full dilation and drops, and then we assign their prescription."

This year, students traveled to Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Paraguay. In those five trips, they performed more than 5,700 exams and prescribed more than 6,200 pairs of glasses. Since 1975, they've made 41 trips to foreign countries and performed nearly 170,000 exams.

The teams bring about 800 pairs of glasses on each trip, and members say they usually distribute the majority of them. Students work from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with patients forming lines that "wrap around the building." Although SVOSH provides services for free, the hosting Lion's Club charges patients the equivalent of about $3 in local currency.

"They're charged enough to make sure there is a serious need, but not so much that they can't afford it," says Barber. "I know there have been several situations where they have let people pass through even if they couldn't afford it."

Occasionally, serious problems are uncovered, like the time Barber discovered a tiny button lodged in a Costa Rican man's eye.

"I was looking into this man's eye, and on the front of the eye, right before the colored part, I saw a white opacity with two pin-sized holes in it," she says. "I immediately ran to a staff doctor, and she said it looked like a button to her too. We asked the interpreter to ask the patient if he'd ever had any trauma to his eye. He replied that he had actually had a button slammed into his eye by one of his siblings."

In such cases, students have to refer the patients to a local specialist, but according to Dr. L. Allen Fors, a SVOSH faculty adviser, the Lion's Club in the host country can usually get the price of the doctor's visit lowered. Fors says about 10 percent of the patients they see cannot be helped on-site. Referrals are made for diseases such as cataracts or glaucoma.

"In Central America, Social Security will pay for cataract removal but won't pay for eyeglasses, so once the cataract is removed, they're still as blind as they were before. We usually take any cataract eyeglasses with us that we have," says Fors. "It just lights up their smile when they can see again. I remember one guy turning to his wife after putting on the cataract glasses and saying, 'You're beautiful.' He hadn't been able to see her in 20 years."

E-mail: bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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