Maria Leonar Garcia Pio, 55, had learned to live with blurred vision because she couldn’t afford to see an eye doctor.
But last month, a free exam at Oregon Health & Science University’s mobile eye clinic offered her a path toward better vision. An OHSU ophthalmologist diagnosed Garcia Pio with cataracts, clouding of the eye that can occur as people age and can lead to blindness if untreated. She was referred to a local eye surgeon for follow-up care.
She told a Spanish-speaking interpreter she is grateful for the program and looks forward to receiving further care to correct her vision.
More than 10,000 people like Garcia Pio have received a free eye exam from an ophthalmologist through the OHSU Casey Community Outreach Program, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It was established in 2010 with the help of the Oregon Community Foundation, Schnitzer Steel and Heather Killough, a grandchild of philanthropist Henry Casey, who made a donation alongside his sister Marguerite to construct the OHSU Casey Eye Institute building in 1991.
As part of OHSU’s Casey Eye Institute, the program sends its specialized 33-foot mobile eye clinic – an ophthalmology exam room on wheels – throughout Oregon to provide free eye exams. It’s overarching goal is to identify sight-threatening conditions in low-income adults before they can cause blindness.
About 60% of the mobile clinic’s clients have received a prescription, and about 20% have been referred to local providers for follow-up care after an ophthalmologist found something concerning. The program looks out for the leading causes of blindness: diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, glaucoma and cataracts.
Bridging an eye care gap
The program fills a key gap in Oregon eye care. While there are many vision screening programs for Oregon’s children, there are few for adults, for whom Medicare vision coverage is extremely limited. OHSU’s mobile eye clinic is the only adult vision screening program in Oregon that offers full, dilated eye exams under the supervision of an ophthalmologist who can diagnose serious eye conditions. The program’s partners, which host each mobile clinic, help clients who receive a referral obtain follow-up care from a local provider.
“My ultimate goal is to not have a job,” said Verian Wedeking, who has led the program since 2015. “I want everyone to have access to eye care across the state. Until that happens, the Casey Community Outreach Program offers free eye exams to anyone, regardless of their income, age, immigration status or ability to access vision care.”
Although the program’s main goal is to prevent blindness, it also offers free prescription glasses because having clear vision also greatly improves quality of life.
“Many Casey Community Outreach Program clients aren’t blind due to a complex eye condition, but simply because they can’t afford glasses,” said OHSU Casey Eye Institute Director David Wilson, M.D., who started the program. “A free pair of glasses can be just as curative as diagnosing and treating macular degeneration.”
‘He was just so grateful’
Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, which offers care to farmworkers and other vulnerable Oregonians, is among the local partners that host the OHSU program’s mobile clinics. It was through Virginia Garcia that Garcia Pio attended the recent mobile clinic and received her cataracts diagnosis.
Lupe Sanchez, a clinical team supervisor at the Newberg clinic, recalled a different Virginia Garcia patient who received their first eye exam at an OHSU mobile clinic last year. He had found a pair of glasses on the side of the street and had been keeping them together with tape for years. An exam at the mobile clinic revealed the patient needed a stronger prescription, and OHSU gave him a new pair.
“He was just so grateful,” Sanchez recalls of the patient. “Even weeks and months afterwards, he would come into the Virginia Garcia clinic and tell everyone ‘look at my glasses,’ showing them off because he could finally see clearly. For him, it was life-changing.”
The program largely relies on volunteers to make its mobile, pop-up clinics happen. One of those volunteers is Rubilia Ibarra, who became a volunteer after facilitating one of the program’s clinics at La Clínica de Buena Salud, a Multnomah County Health Department clinic in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood where she works as a community health specialist.
“Having Casey’s outreach program has been a ray of hope for La Clínica clients,” said Ibarra, noting her clinic primarily serves Latino and Black patients, as well as Somalian immigrants, communities that are often underserved by health care. “This program has been consistently coming to our clinic for four years, and our clients importantly trust the service they receive from Casey.”
Ibarra knows of at least one La Clínica client who had an emergency surgery to save their vision after the program’s volunteers diagnosed them with an urgent, sight-threatening problem.
When the coronavirus pandemic emerged in Oregon, the Casey Community Outreach Program paused its operations in March to ensure public, staff and volunteer safety.
But now that the virus is better understood, the program resumed operations in September for counties that are in Phase 2 or above of the state’s pandemic reopening plan. New safety measures include wearing face masks and other protective gear, physical distancing and reducing the number of clients served at each mobile clinic.
“This service is always needed,” says Sanchez of Virginia Garcia. “But, even though we’re in a pandemic and some people are reluctant to attend events, the fact that we had 19 people come to the Casey mobile clinic at our site says this service is really needed now.”
OHSU Casey Community Outreach Program, 2010-Present:
- 300 clinics held
- 10,015 people served
- 5,934 vision prescriptions given
- 2,358 people received referrals for follow-up eye care
- 80 referrals for urgent needs that immediately threatened a person’s sight
- 28,482 volunteer hours
- 71 partner agencies and organizations have hosted the program’s mobile clinics
How to help:
- More info: Go to https://www.ohsu.edu/casey-eye-institute/casey-community-outreach-program-mobile-clinic.
- Volunteer: Send an email to email@example.com.
- Donate: Go to https://www.onwardohsu.org/supportcasey?source=CEIV18QB, select “other”, and note the donation is for the Casey Community Outreach Program.