Clinic, OSU students help homeless people see

Free clinic staffed by Ohio State students helps homeless people with vision problems


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some patients live in their cars, driving along blurry roads in eyeglasses that belong to someone else.

They fear losing a job over mistakes or struggle to find one because they can’t read applications.

At the Faith Mission Outreach Eye Clinic, Dr. Joan Nerderman understands that — for people without money, food or a place to live — poor vision doesn’t always rank as an immediate concern.

The clinic at the downtown homeless shelter — which provides free vision care and glasses to those without health insurance — sees more than 1,500 patients annually. It also serves another purpose: to educate the fourth-year students in the Ohio State University College of Optometry who, under the supervision of Nerderman, staff the clinic on its three open days a week.

Founded in 2000 with a federal grant, the clinic has since been funded by Ohio State. The school, which donated $150,000 in equipment to the facility, spent $147,000 last year on clinic personnel, services and supplies.

But optometry dean Melvin D. Shipp said the clinic’s benefits to both students and the community far exceed the costs.

“This is one of those things you can’t put a dollar amount on, as far as the value you provide,” he said.

The clinic sees an average of 14 patients a day, some of whom are referred from free medical clinics and social-service agencies. Others walk in off the street, not expecting the opportunity to choose from the 1,200 name-brand frames donated annually by Select Optical in Worthington.

In opting to spend one of their four clinical rotations at Faith Mission, students experience a different realm of patient care than they do at private practices, where eye appointments can be routine.

Patients at Faith Mission, meanwhile, appreciate even a pair of drugstore reading glasses as they await prescriptions. Nowhere else have patients been so thankful, said student Paul Bingham, 30, of Douglas, Wyo.

The experience has helped Bingham better appreciate homelessness and how vision problems interfere with daily tasks — from filling out job applications to navigating the bus system.

“It’s not just fixing their vision,” he said. “It’s helping them fix their own lives.”

The eye exams might have saved the lives of a few patients: Nerderman and her students have detected tumors, including one that required the removal of the eye. Nerderman urges patients to take diagnoses seriously, promising to see them “forever, for free.”

“If you don’t follow up, you’re going to go blind,” she tells them. “It’s that simple.”

That could have happened to William Cameron, a 55-year-old resident of a Lancaster homeless shelter who recently visited the clinic to get medication for his red, stinging eyes.

During an exam at the clinic three years ago — his first in two decades — his blurred vision and severe headaches were diagnosed as glaucoma, a condition serious enough to eventually require surgery.

Without the clinic, he said, “I know I wouldn’t have been able to see.

“It was a lifesaver.”

Shipp, the OSU dean, attributes much of the clinic’s success to Nerderman ("Dr. Joan” to patients and students), a mainstay for 11 years after an initial period of staff turnover and instability.

Initially interested in teaching part time at the school, Nerderman found herself continuing her own education. Having previously worked at an office in Westerville, she hadn’t seen a patient with eyes damaged by the effects of crack cocaine.

Now an expert by default, she gives guest lectures on topics such as drug abuse and domestic violence, encouraging students to understand that patient problems might not be limited to the eyes.

Working at the clinic has become her calling.

“Every day I’m here, I think, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do,’??” said Nerderman, 56. “Some days are trying, but it’s meant to be.”

She hopes that some of her students will continue as volunteers. A survey of optometry-school alumni once found that graduates were 94 percent more likely to volunteer services if they participated in the Faith Mission rotation.

Among them is Dr. Jon Mesarch, a 2005 graduate who volunteers monthly at another free clinic and is planning his fourth mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

Through experiences such as the Faith Mission “externship,” he knew that he wanted to practice not in a suburb such as his hometown of New Albany but in a small community where patients most need his help.

At Buckeye Vision Care in Logan, he is reminded daily of how people struggle to afford the care they need — placing the purpose of his services in human terms.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “you really want to help somebody see.”