Professional Development

Optometric Mission Trips: What You Should Know & Why You Should Do It

By Thuy-Lan Nguyen, OD

May 8, 2019

Optometric mission trips, in which ODs travel to parts of the world where people are in need of eyecare, can help hone doctoring skills, and create a more fulfilled practitioner. I have found that every time I participate in a mission trip I come back more motivated and upbeat about optometry.

As a professor at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry, I take my renewed enthusiasm and sharpened skills back to my students.

I went on my last mission trip to Ecuador in March 2019 because it was a great opportunity for me to see the world, use my skills as an optometrist to serve people in need, and to teach students how optometrists can truly make a difference. This was my third mission trip.

Dr. Nguyen takes a case history of a patient during a recent mission trip to Ecuador. She says that such trips enhance her skills as a doctor and renew her enthusiasm for the profession.

In the past, I participated in NSU SVOSH trips to Nicaragua and Dominican Republic. On my first trip to Dominican Republic, I learned the joy of serving a community of people who were  in need, and were truly appreciative of what we do.

Most patients we saw had never had an eye examination before, and they would not have had access to eyecare without us. It was a great reminder of why I chose to go into optometry to begin with. I could tell that we were making a difference in their lives. The feeling was addictive. It made we want to do more.

How Much Time & Money Does a Mission Trip Require?
The time and money required to participate in mission trips will vary depending on where the trip is and how long you stay. The SVOSH group typically stays at modest and inexpensive, yet safe, hostels or hotels. We share rooms to save money. In Ecuador, we stayed at a lovely little hostel that was around $25 per night. It was not a five-star resort, but it was safe and clean. Typically, with flights, lodging, food and local transportation, participants each pay around a $1,000 for a 5-7 day trip.

What Do You Do on a Mission Trip?
We perform full comprehensive eye examinations on the mission trips. We break up the exam into multiple stations starting with case history, visual acuities, pupil evaluation, direct ophthalmoscopy, retinoscopy and refraction, intra ocular pressures, blood pressures and dilation for retinal exams.

We bring portable equipment such as our diagnostic sets, trial lens sets and trial frame, as well as portable tonometers, slit lamps and binocular indirect ophthalmoscopes. It is definitely a team effort. We also bring a large supply of pre-measured glasses that were donated to SVOSH, and we dispense as many glasses as possible.

ODs on Mission Trips Make a Difference
I’ve had countless success stories from mission trips. Seeing patients smile and hug me because I’ve given them glasses that allow for clear vision for the first time in their life is beyond rewarding. In Ecuador, we had a 95-year-old man who traveled hours from the mountains for our services. He had an unknown eye surgery decades ago, but still could not see. Luckily, with a good refraction, we got him to 20/25 acuities and we had glasses with his prescription available. He could see the faces of his grandchildren for the first time.

The next day, I examined a man and discovered his blood pressure was dangerously high. He had retinopathy consistent with uncontrolled hypertension. He admitted that he occasionally felt fatigue and pain, but he had never been to the doctor because he had to work every day to provide for his family.

I explained to him that he had to go to a doctor and treat his blood pressure immediately because if something tragic happened to him, there would be no one to care for his family. He then admitted that his father died when he was a young boy, so he vowed to make a change and go to the doctor immediately. During these encounters, students were actively involved in patient care as well. So, I feel like I’m making a difference in patient’s lives, their family’s lives and inspiring students and the next generation of optometrists.

Mission Trips Can Sharpen Skills
These mission trips definitely sharpen my skills as a doctor. In everyday practice, we have the luxury of automated technology, such as auto refractors and retinal cameras, to help us treat patients. But on mission trips, sometimes we are working in churches that don’t even have electricity, so we cannot rely on technology. I had to become proficient at evaluating optic nerves with hand-held direct ophthalmoscopy.

We determine refractive errors with good old-fashioned retinoscopy with lens racks and trial frame refraction. NSU SVOSH typically travels to the Caribbean or South or Central America, so I use my Spanish a lot. I’m not fluent, but my Spanish gets better after each trip. Many of our students and doctors don’t know any Spanish at all, but they get by as best as possible. When it comes to examining and treating patients, mission trips force me out of my comfort zone and teach me flexibility and how to make do with what you have.

Let Patients Know & Get Involved
ODs should definitely let patients know that they participate in mission trips. Their staff should know as well, so they can talk to patients about it. It is something to be proud of. It shows patients and the local community that giving back is part of the doctor’s personal, professional and practice philosophy.

But even if an OD is not able to travel for an international mission trip, and they participate in local vision screenings or other charitable organizations, they should make it known to their staff and patients. Patients appreciate and admire a doctor who uses their skills to give back. Millennials in particular are very socially aware. Millennial patients and employees are more loyal to businesses that actively and genuinely give back.

There are multiple ways that practices can get involved in mission trips and charitable endeavors. Organizations such as SVOSH and the Lion’s Club always have a need for gently used glasses. During the three mission trips I’ve been on, we always run out of plus-powered glasses. +4.00 and higher is like gold for patients in the Caribbean and South America.

Sunglasses are also extremely valuable. In Ecuador, we saw so many patients with pterygiums and cataracts due to the UV exposure. We ran out of sunglasses and artificial tears quickly. In addition to glasses and sunglasses, many organizations also need artificial tears, medication eye drops and even portable equipment. And if nothing else, SVOSH would be extremely grateful for financial donations, so more students can afford to go on mission trips.

 

Thuy-Lan Nguyen, OD, teaches at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry. To contact her: TLNGUYEN@nova.edu

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