Everyone says “traveling will change you.” It will alter your outlook, your perceptions of the world, and introduce you to new and exciting adventures. As someone who had never left North America before, I never doubted this, but I also never fully understood how going abroad””and helping others””could have such a profound impact on my life.
That is, until this past March when I journeyed to El Salvador, along with 10 fellow classmates from Pacific University College of Optometry to team up with FUDEM, a private nonprofit foundation that provides holistic services to residents of El Salvador, especially the economically vulnerable. As a first-year student, I employed my skills to check visual acuities (in Spanish), brushed up on my cover test technique, and practiced retinoscopy in anticipation of the procedures proficiency test that was waiting for me when I returned.
Nothing prepared me for the hard work involved and the sheer volume of people who needed help. Our entire group saw more than 550 patients a day in makeshift clinics set up in churches, schools, and even the top floor of a concrete parking garage. Patients filed through a series of stations which included determining their refractive error, prescribing glasses, checking ocular health, providing referrals for cataract and pterygium surgery (if needed), and ordering custom glasses.
I had never been so busy working 10-hours a day over five full clinic days but it was worth it, especially when I got the chance to help prescribe glasses for a 13-year-old girl who no longer attended school because of her poor sight. With the glasses I bought her””$12 was too much for her to afford””she will be able to return to school and continue her education. Just as important to a young girl, she will be able to see and play with her friends!
I always knew that this would be an amazing experience but I didn’t get, until I was deep in the thick of it, how underserved so many parts of the world are and how students like me can help make a difference by employing what we’ve learned in the classroom, as well as by learning from the people we are helping.
Editor’s Note: This column, appearing every other month, will be written by a future optometrist. In this forum, a different student will voice her or his thoughts on the profession. Know of someone who might be interested? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Pallagi just completed her first year at Pacific University. She is particularly interested in corneal issues and contact lenses.