10,000+ free eye exams to prevent blindness in Oregon

Community , Health Care
Casey Community Outreach Program
Casey Community Outreach Program
A masked Black woman in a white hat tries on glasses while looking in a hand mirror, across the table from a masked white male volunteer.
After receiving a free eye exam at an OHSU Casey Community Outreach Program mobile clinic in Newberg on Sept. 19, 2020, Agatha Castle tries on a free pair of glasses with the help of volunteer Zachary Urdang, M.D., Ph.D., who is also an OHSU surgical resident. (OHSU)

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.

The Casey Community Outreach Program's mobile unit - a large white bus with many colorful photos of people - is shown parked, filling the frame.
The OHSU Casey Community Outreach Program's 33-foot mobile eye clinic is an ophthalmology exam room on wheels that travels throughout Oregon to provide free eye exams for low-income adults. (OHSU)

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.

A white masked woman (left) stands with a masked Hispanic female patient (center) and a masked Asian male volunteer (right) stand in front of a clinic's glass windows with 5 numeral balloons reading "10,000" (1, 0, 0, 0, 0 from left to right).
Maria Leonar Garcia Pio (center) was the 10,000th person to receive an eye exam from the OHSU Casey Community Outreach Program when it visited Newberg on Sept. 19. She is shown here with celebratory baloons and OHSU ophthalmologist Christina Flaxel, M.D., and OHSU medical student Jimmy Chen (right), both of whom volunteer for the program. (OHSU)

“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.”

A blond, white woman (left) sits on a stool in a mobile medical office holding a mobile phone, while making eye contact and conversing with a dark-haired female (right), also seated.
Dr. Meryl Sundy (left) works with Ashley Wirth as they volunteer with the Casey Eye Institute Outreach Program during a service trip working with the Klamath Tribes community in Chiloquin, Oregon, June 3, 2019. This photograph was taken before the coronavirus pandemic. The program requires face masks and other protective equipment during the pandemic. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

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.

Needed service

When the coronavirus pandemic emerged in Oregon, the Casey Community Outreach Program paused its operations in March to ensure public, staff and volunteer safety.

A seated, blond, white woman (left) looks into an opthamalogical assessment instrument's eye pieces while a dark-haired woman (right) stands behind her with a clipboard in a mobile medical office.
Dr. Meryl Sundy (left) works with Ashley Wirth as they volunteer with the Casey Eye Institute Outreach Program during a service trip working with the Klamath Tribes community in Chiloquin, Oregon, June 3, 2019. This photograph was taken before the coronavirus pandemic. The program requires face masks and other protective equipment during the pandemic. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

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.”

A close-up shot of a Black woman holding a small opthamalogical light.
Jasmine Curry works with a patient as she volunteers with the Casey Eye Institute Outreach Program in Chiloquin, Oregon, June 3, 2019. This photograph was taken before the coronavirus pandemic. The program requires face masks and other protective equipment during the pandemic. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

OHSU Casey Community Outreach Program, 2010-Present:

How to help:


Franny White
Senior Media Relations Specialist
OHSU
503-494-8231