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Elks association essential to OHSU’s fight against childhood blindness

Fraternal order gives $20M to build new Oregon Elks Children’s Eye Clinic
Oregon Elks Children's Eye Clinic
Rendering of the new Oregon Elks Children's Eye Clinic Building. The facility will be 11,500 square feet and home to Clinical Trials, Macular Degeneration and Ophthalmic Genetics Centers. (Rendering by NBBJ)

When two prematurely born sons of an Oregon City judge and Elks member sadly went blind nearly 70 years ago, the Oregon State Elks were compelled to act.

The young boys’ unfortunate fate spurred decades of collaboration between OHSU and the Elks to combat pediatric vision problems, which became the Elks’ primary philanthropic focus in Oregon.

Thanks to a $20 million pledge from the Elks, OHSU is able to break ground June 2 on a $50 million, 60,000 square-foot building that will be named the Oregon Elks Children’s Eye Clinic. The new building will sit beside the OHSU Casey Eye Institute, which has been the hub of OHSU eye care services since 1991 and currently houses a smaller children’s eye clinic that’s also supported by the Elks.

“We simply cannot overlook the fact that we have children who are needlessly going blind,” said Jim Damon of Bend, Oregon, who served as the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks’ national president 1990-91. “The little ones who are growing up now will be running the world in short order. We can’t stop. We have too many things to do for these children.”

David Wilson, M.D.
David Wilson, M.D.
Jim Damon
Jim Damon

David Wilson, M.D., director of the OHSU Casey Eye Institute and chair of ophthalmology in the OHSU School of Medicine, is grateful for the Elks.

“We can’t thank the Elks enough for their tremendous and tireless support,” Wilson said. “Their generous donations over many decades have made it possible for the Elks Children’s Eye Clinic at OHSU to help countless children receive the gift of sight.”

For the kids

The Elks-OHSU partnership started in 1949, when the Elks helped Kenneth Swan, M.D., the first ophthalmology department chair of the then-University of Oregon Medical School, establish a children’s eye clinic. That clinic would go on to outgrow its initial space and become the current Elks Children’s Eye Clinic on the fifth floor of the Casey Eye Institute.

Back in the 1950s, Swan suspected premature babies were going blind because of oxygen levels in incubators. He asked for the Elks’ help in purchasing an advanced piece of equipment to examine the issue further. The oximeter they bought helped Swan understand that less oxygen was needed in incubators to ensure the vessels in preemies’ retinas didn’t grow out of control, a condition that became known as retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP, and is the leading cause of childhood blindness today.

Elks - Historical photo
Oregon State Elks members Jerry Sherman (left), Frank Hise (center left) and Ted Hurd (far right) present OHSU’s Kenneth Swan, M.D., (center right) with a check in this undated archive photo. (OHSU)

New treatment options

Flash forward to the 1980s, when another OHSU physician, Earl Palmer, M.D., built on Swan’s work and led an international clinical trial. The study found treating a portion of a preemie’s retina with a freezing probe, called cryotherapy, could prevent infants with ROP from going blind. More advanced treatments have been discovered since then, but this early treatment was the first to stave off ROP.

Michael Chiang, M.D.
Michael Chiang, M.D.

Thanks to the Elks’ ongoing support, OHSU continues to be a national leader in ROP today. For example, Michael F. Chiang, M.D., and colleagues have developed an artificial intelligence-powered algorithm that can more accurately diagnose the condition in eye images than most expert physicians.

As a pediatric ophthalmologist at the current Elks Children’s Eye Clinic within the OHSU Casey Eye Institute, Chiang says the Elks are a key partner in caring for his young patients.

“Directly or indirectly, every child that we treat benefits from the Oregon State Elks,” Chiang said. “The Elks have shown me what can happen when a group of people get together and mobilize. They’ve shown me that real people can make a real difference.”

Statewide reach

The Elks also support several other pediatric vision care efforts at OHSU beyond the clinic. They sponsor a program that sends teams traveling across Oregon to evaluate the eyesight of Head Start preschoolers, and pays for kids to receive glasses or follow-up care if needed. Similarly, they support an annual party at the Oaks Park Roller Skating Rink in Portland that includes vision screening for young children.

Elks members also serve as the Casey Eye Institute’s help desk, directing patients to their appointments and answering questions. And every child who undergoes surgery at Casey is given both a stuffed toy elk and an Elk-made quilt.

Gene Spina
Gene Spina

All of this collaboration adds up to a welcoming, caring space for young patients and their families, said Gene Spina of Portland, who chairs the Elks Youth Eye Service charitable fund.

“You can sense it when you walk in the building; there’s something special going on there,” Spina said. “We want to make sure every child gets the care they need.”

Oregon Elks Children’s Eye Clinic Groundbreaking

When: Saturday, June 2, at 2 p.m.

Where: 3375 S.W. Terwilliger Boulevard, Portland OR


  • OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A.
  • OHSU faculty
  • Casey Eye Institute volunteers and donors

*Media who are interested in covering the event should contact Franny White: (c) 971-413-1992 or (e)


Oregon State Elks and OHSU: By the Numbers

  • 2: number of sons of Oregon City Elks member Judge Robert Mulvey who went blind due to retinopathy of prematurity
  • 1949: year Oregon State Elks started supporting pediatric ophthalmology efforts at the then-University of Oregon Medical School
  • 1991: year the Casey Eye Institute building opened as the OHSU ophthalmology department’s hub after Elks members and family members of United Parcel Service co-founders James and George Casey, among many others, supported its construction
  • 18,000: number of annual patient visits at the current Elks Children’s Eye Clinic
  • 40: percentage of patients at the Elks Children’s Eye Clinic who are uninsured or underinsured, and whose care is assisted by the Oregon State Elks
  • 7,844: number of Head Start students screened statewide this year through the Elks Preschool Vision Program
  • 6,000: number of hours Elks volunteers provide patient help at the Casey Eye Institute information desk annually
  • 500: average number of quilts Elks members make and donate annually to pediatric ophthalmology surgery patients
  • $20 million: amount Oregon State Elks have pledged to help construct the new Elks Children’s Eye Clinic building
  • $50 million: total amount Oregon State Elks will have provided to support OHSU pediatric ophthalmology efforts once the new Elks Children’s Eye Clinic is built
Oregon Elks Children's Eye Clinic
Thanks to a $20 million pledge from the Elks, OHSU is able to break ground June 2 on a $50 million, 60,000 square-foot building that will be named the Oregon Elks Children’s Eye Clinic. (Rendering by NBBJ)

New Oregon Elks Children’s Eye Clinic Building

Total cost: $50 million

  • Size: 60,000 square feet, five stories
  • Will be home to:
    • A larger Elks Children’s Eye Clinic
      • New clinic will be 11,500 square feet; current clinic is 4,200 square feet
    • Macular Degeneration Center
    • Ophthalmic Genetics Center
    • Clinical Trials Center
  • Expected outcomes:
    • Patient capacity to grow by a third in 10 years
    • Gene therapy clinical trials and treatments to quadruple within five years
  • Design features:
    • Lighting, signage and other elements designed for patients with limited vision
    • Color-changing glass in a bridge that will connect to the existing Casey Eye Institute building
    • Outdoor courtyard and sensory garden
  • Design: NBBJ, of Seattle
  • Construction: Skanska, of Portland
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