Over three days in October, three central Iowa organizations, an international nonprofit, two DMU alumni and 17 students came together in an effort that likely saved several individuals’ ability to see.
Delta Dental of Iowa and Delta Vision led efforts to offer a free vision clinic at Oakridge, a nonprofit housing and human services agency located on 17 acres in Des Moines’ urban core. Delta Dental teamed up with Prevent Blindness Iowa, a health and safety organization dedicated to preventing blindness through public and professional education, early detection through vision screening, patient services and research, and OneSight, a global organization that partners with donors, volunteers and sponsors to bring eye exams and glasses to the individuals and places in need of eye care. DMU students got involved as volunteers who helped staff the clinic.
“It was hands-down one of the most meaningful and valuable events to me and my medical education,” says Cole Bacig, a second-year osteopathic medicine student who worked all three days of the clinic.
He and classmate Katie Harbeck had experience providing vision screenings at local elementary schools after connecting with Phil Blumberg, M.H.A., executive director of the DMU Clinic and president of the board of Prevent Blindness Iowa (PBI). He put the students in touch with Amy O’Brien, PBI assistant director, when the idea arose for the clinic at Oakridge.
“This work is so important – so many people take their vision for granted, and with kids the stakes are even greater as they often don’t know that they aren’t seeing correctly,” Phil says. “Without a proper vision screening it may go undetected for years, resulting in children disengaging from learning/school, poor grades, behavior problems and possible permanent vision loss or an irreversible condition that could have been corrected if caught sooner. The Oakridge event was a tremendous lift and could not have happened without DMU students giving of their time.”
Amy agrees. “The students were willing to jump in and help wherever they were needed. The clinic doctors were so impressed by them,” she says. “And the Oakridge staff were amazing in assisting us. I’ve been with PBI for quite a long time, but this event was really special.”
Numbers from the three-day clinic reveal its success: 357 patients were screened, with 290 needing glasses. Many were referred on for further care for previously undiagnosed vision problems such as glaucoma and cataracts. Almardi Abdalla, M.A., vice president of family and workforce programs at Oakridge, says the clinic raised awareness among neighborhood residents, who represent 22 nations, of the importance of having annual vision screenings.
“Some told me they hadn’t had their vision checked for years. Many only see a doctor when they have problems, so vision and dental care can be neglected,” he says. “It was great to have the clinic here, because we have language support. And the DMU students were a great addition. They were very thoughtful, thorough and took the time to help based on what people were saying. You could feel their passion and compassion.”
For Cole and Katie, who recruited and coordinated other students for the event, it was a powerful opportunity to serve patients. Students gave up part of their fall break to volunteer.
“As medical students, we’re ‘go, go, go’ all the time, so this was a great way to channel my energy while on break. The first-year students came to the clinic right after they’d had four exams in one week. I was so grateful for them,” Cole says. “For me personally, I was able to grow with some technical skills and teach them to other students. I put in eye drops to dilate the pupils of another DMU student after we’d just learned about the mechanism of the eye. And we got to care for patients.”
Katie, who was a scribe in an eye clinic during a “gap” year before enrolling at DMU, said the latter benefit was especially meaningful given the COVID-19 pandemic. “What we missed last year was working with clinical patients,” she says.
The two alumni involved were Maren Lenhart, M.P.H.’13, a community impact analyst at Delta Dental of Iowa, and Rick Blodi, D.O.’17, an ophthalmologist with Des Moines Eye Surgeons, who was among the 10 physician volunteers. Maren scribed as Dr. Blodi examined patients.
“His soft skills with patients were incredible. He spoke Spanish to a few patients whose primary language was Spanish, interacted with the patient instead of the translator – that’s huge – and interacted with patients of all ages, from one year old to 88-plus years old,” she says. “When a serious health problem was suspected, which was more often than any of us expected, he provided referral information so that he could continue seeing these individuals.”
Dr. Blodi says he grew up in a “family of ophthalmologists,” including his grandfather, father and an aunt, who also married an ophthalmologist. “We’d spend family dinners talking about eyes,” he jokes. During the free vision clinic, he met with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and talked with the DMU student volunteers. That sparked yet another positive outcome: Because Cole is interested in ophthalmology, Dr. Blodi invited him to shadow him in his practice.
“He and I were able to talk about our DMU professors as well as ophthalmology,” Cole says. “Volunteer experiences like that fuel my fire. I was just grateful to be there – it was the best part of my break.”