Kimberly O’Sullivan
Director, Communications
Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry
(301) 231-5944 ext. 3019

Optometry Schools Reach Out To Help Hurricane Victims

October 27, 2005 — It has become increasingly clear, now that the initial response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has passed, that the schools and colleges of optometry were able to respond to these disasters quickly and effectively, mobilizing their resources to provide eye and vision care to those so direly in need of their services. The support they provided to patients, to their alumni and to their communities was inspirational and demonstrated optometry’s vital contributions to improving the quality of life of those served.

Closest to the action was the University of Houston College of Optometry (UH) , which established triage centers and standalone primary eye care centers at the Astrodome/Reliant Park Center and the Convention Center. UH treated a total of 2800 patients at the two facilities. UH Dean Dr. Earl Smith reported that ” eye and vision care services were accessed more than the care from any other discipline.” Of the patients treated, 6% were diagnosed with glaucoma and 30% were diagnosed with eye disease. Dr. Lloyd Pate of the UH faculty, who worked at the Astrodome full-time during the immediate crisis, treated a number of victims including a boy who had broken his -13.00 glasses while waiting on a roof and was grateful to see again.

Another patient had glaucoma surgery a few days before the hurricane. Dr. Pate provided follow-up care and gave him new medicines. Dr. Pate also found severe diabetic retinopathy in several patients who were referred for surgery the very day that they were examined.

At UH’s clinical facilities at the University Eye Institute (UEI), 556 victims impacted by Katrina and 69 victims impacted by Hurricane Rita were examined. (Note: In the first six weeks, 319 patients were seen; in the last three weeks, that number almost doubled.)

A thank you note sent to UH from a grateful patient in Gretna , LA , said, “Thank you for offering me a free eye exam and glasses. I also want to thank you for helping other Katrina and Rita victims. What you did really warmed my heart. And your kindness meant a lot. God bless you with all my heart.”

Alumni from the Southern College of Optometry (SCO) were among those optometrists hit the hardest. Nearly 100 alumni lived in Katrina’s heaviest area of devastation. More than 80 were additionally affected by Rita’s follow-up strike.

Led by Dr. Lisa Wade, vice president of institutional advancement, SCO has kept an updated list of affected alumni, their whereabouts, those needing work and those willing to assist.

“Going forward, finding work is probably going to be the biggest challenge for many of these alumni who have lost their practice or who have no patients to go back to,” Dr. Wade said.

In addition to helping their alumni, SCO reached out to treat victims who had been relocated to Memphis , providing help through its Eye Center with eyewear and prescriptions. One such patient was a New Orleans resident who was living in a Memphis motel when she came to the Eye Center for assistance with her glaucoma medicine. “My family lost everything,” she told the SCO instructor, as he treated her at the Eye Center . “I appreciate you folks being so kind to us.”

According to Dr. Sam Pierce, a local O.D. and UAB graduate, similar compassion was shared by the faculty, students and staff at the University of Alabama School of Optometry (UAB). UAB staff reported that the underlying theme from most of the evacuees was deep appreciation for the school since they realized they had been treated as if they were established patients even though they would probably never see us again. One hurricane victim said, “I don’t know what I would do without my glasses. I can’t even fill out the paperwork at the shelter.”

UAB is now focusing its efforts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (Bay St. Louis) since the overwhelming needs of the hurricane evacuees have been met in Birmingham .

Dr. George Foster, dean, Northeastern State University College of Optometry , reported that faculty and students examined and provided eye glasses or contact lenses to over 200 people evacuated to a National Guard camp near the school.

“The stories of these people are heart breaking,” Dr. Foster said. “All they have is the new clothes that have been provided. Stories are told of living in the Super Dome for five to seven days, then sitting in buses for 26 hours without knowing where they were going or what their future would be. Then they were placed in the hills of Oklahoma . I’m very proud of the whole health care team.They have jumped in and volunteered their expertise to help.”

Other optometry schools, although physically more removed from the disaster, were involved in relief efforts. One example was the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) , which mobilized its clinical arm, The Eye Institute (TEI), to offer free vision screenings and eyeglass and contact lens replacements to hurricane victims relocated to Philadelphia . According to Celeste Tucker, who manages patient modules at TEI, “The newspapers are filled with stories of people who were evacuated with just the clothes on their back; glasses, contacts and medication were either left behind or forgotten in the chaos. PCO was convinced that through TEI, the College’s clinical arm, it could perform an important service to these individuals by offering eye examinations, prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses and attending to other optometric issues.” “Everyone we have seen thus far is so touched with the care, concern and generosity demonstrated by the staff of TEI…,” Tucker added.

All schools and colleges contributed to relief efforts by opening their clinics to provide pro bono eye examinations for victims and/or by holding fund raisers to donate money and supplies.

The experience of responding to a disaster of this proportion compelled ASCO to begin developing an “ASCO Role in Disasters” policy that will position the ASCO office as “Information Clearinghouse and Communications Central” and will outline ways that optometric education can respond, individually and collectively, to future needs that arise from local, regional and national crises.


Go to news article page