There was something different about one of the thousands of preschool patients examined by the UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic.
“There was this young kid who was very shy, nonverbal, always walking with his head down,” said Patricia Aguilar, an ophthalmic assistant at the clinic.
But when she tested his eyesight, Aguilar found that his vision was outside of the normal range. She assessed the correct prescription and gave him a pair of new glasses.
“Suddenly, he started speaking, even when (others) said (they’d) never heard him speak,” Aguilar said. “He even changed his posture.”
Aguilar works at the UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic, the community outreach extension of the UCLA Stein Eye Institute. Established in 1975 by an anonymous donor, the clinic provides free eye exams and treatments options for underserved communities throughout Los Angeles County.
Clinic ophthalmologists, along with undergraduate and medical student volunteers, visit community centers, churches and homeless shelters in the LA area to provide vision care.
The clinic reached its goal of performing 90,000 eye exams for preschool children in LA County last month, said Kara Mondino, the clinic’s public administration analyst. She said the clinic received a $4.1 million grant sourced from revenue from California’s 1998 tobacco tax.
“Poor vision permeates so many aspects of patient’s life,” Mondino said. “(For example), you get increased risk of falls and fractures, homeless people can’t read job applications and those with mental health issues can’t read the bottle to take the appropriate amount of medication.”
Mondino said she thinks the clinic’s biggest accomplishment is that it managed to conduct eye health screenings for 14 percent of LA County preschool students in five years.
“School-age kids are required to be screened for vision, but not necessarily preschool kids,” she said. “It’s definitely an important niche that we fill, because kids’ eyes stop developing around age 8, so if we catch problems early, we can better prepare them for success.”
Aguilar added parents often have a difficult time realizing their children have vision deficits, since young children often have lived with the condition most of their lives or do not know how to verbalize their vision problems. Aguilar said she thinks it is important to educate parents to improve vision care for affected children.
“Kids don’t complain about anything. We want more outreach in the community.” she said. “Now, for example, we have a YouTube video that parents watch (about vision care) and they get a greater understanding than they had before”.
Rachel Lin, a third-year biology student and a volunteer in the clinic, said she has helped the clinic manage and collect data from examined preschoolers.
Lin said she joined the clinic because she is considering becoming an optometrist and wanted to get more experience in the field.
“What was most surprising to me is the behind-the-scenes operation that goes into upkeeping the organization,” Lin said. “The majority of the time I’m in the office doing data entry and ordering glasses for preschoolers.”
She said the undergraduate volunteers also work on independent projects, like fundraising for the clinic or running the clinic’s social media accounts.
Lin said during clinic visits she helps operate the autorefractor, a machine used to determine a patient’s required prescription, or she helps patients with paperwork and any questions they may have.
“Beforehand, I worked at an optometry office and got to see the patient side of things,” she said. “(Volunteering at the clinic), I was able to see the doctor’s side, and really know that I’m making a difference.”
Mondino added she hopes the clinic can provide better vision care in the future for homeless populations throughout LA County. She said she thinks homelessness is a growing issue in the county, and said she thinks more needs to be done to address homeless individuals’ healthcare needs.
“To see well is to live well,” Mondino said.”Vision care is often overlooked until it’s gone.”