From Eyeballs to Global Eye Health: An Origin Story

Inspiration comes and goes, and I believe we are lucky enough to even experience it a handful of times during our lives. We all want that feeling of the curtain call, hearing the applause, taking our bow, and stealing the show. My first hint of inspiration hit me when I was seventeen years old, sitting in my Anatomy & Physiology class. Class had just started, but I was already drumming my fingers on my desk anxiously awaiting soccer practice after school. I knew we would be doing animal dissections that day, and our teacher Ms. Luber, placed a sheep’s eyeball and brain on our group’s table. My tablemate immediately grabbed the tray with the brain, so I was forced to resort to dissecting the eyeball. I used a blade to slice the cornea off, and immediately aqueous fluid began to flow. I then made a lateral dissection of the eyeball, splitting it in half. I could feel the hardened lens and see the vitreous fluid revealing the wall of colors—blue, green, and purple—on the back of the retina as it flowed out. This experience struck me as a calling in a sense—to work in the field of eyeballs. And that was all I knew in that moment.

The most logical output for any South Asian 1st generation child of immigrant parents was to think to become an eye doctor. I didn’t know of any other health streams at that time. During my undergraduate years at the University of Maryland, I followed a pre-optometry track that immersed me in advanced biology and chemistry courses. But these classes just did not inspire me. Part of my curtain call during this time was working as a research assistant at The Jeffrey Laboratory. There, I physically extracted over 500 eyeballs of blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) which we were phenotyping to identify quantitative loci for retinal degeneration. I learned through this experience that I physically enjoyed working with my steady hands. Then, during my senior year, inspiration struck again, but this time in a different way. Spontaneously, I had decided to try something completely out of my element and obtained an internship with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory working on a public health approach to track the distribution of condoms by the AIDS Foundation to Lesotho, Africa to reduce the rise of burgeoning rates of HIV/AIDS among police officers and their families. Being part of the team that developed the tools and technology to track this mechanism made me feel powerful. I began to creatively imagine the ways we could solve other global health issues, and more importantly, other global eye health issues.

Forgoing my acceptances to optometry school, I decided to explore more of the public health realm, a field I had little experience in. I began taking graduate level courses in epidemiology and biostatistics within a non-degree seeking program to get my feet wet before applying for a full fledge Master’s in Public Health (MPH) program. At the same time, I also began working at an ophthalmology clinic since I wanted to work on exploring both of my passions—public health and eye care. After a year of working at the clinic, I learned about the Georgetown Ophthalmic Medical Training Program which I attended and obtained a certificate as an ophthalmic assistant. A short time later, I began my MPH program after I graduated from Georgetown University.

Working in a clinic as the lead ophthalmic technician, I began to fall into a regular routine of working full-time and attending graduate school part-time. An opportunity arose with one of the ophthalmologists in our practice to travel to Trinidad & Tobago on a mission trip to screen cataract and glaucoma patients. I jumped at the opportunity to visit the cities of Charaguas, San Chikitos, and Rio Claro. On this four-day trip, we worked 12 to 14-hour shifts screening patients with a retinoscope and fitting them with glasses. There is one boy who stands out from that trip who’s smile I will never forget as I fit him with a pair of glasses. He was happy he could finally play basketball with his friends.

When I was sitting on the plane ride back to Washington, D.C., it dawned on me that in just four days, we had helped 1,132 people gain access to eye care services. This realization of the scale-up of the vulnerable population we had intervened with in just that brief time period proved to be a heavy and lingering thought on my mind. So, I set forth on a journey of recreating this feeling where I lived and worked. I began to ask myself some life-changing questions of whether working in a clinic was my destiny or was I meant for something bigger? Would I be an effective public health/clinical professional helping to prevent avoidable blindness around the world?

After much contemplation, I decided to leave the ophthalmology clinic and work as a contractor for the Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Hospital Network with their Vision Center of Excellence department in an effort to recreate the feelings I felt in Trinidad as I was finishing up my MPH. I worked on the congressional mandate for the Defense and Veteran’s Eye Injury and Vision Registry (DVEIVR), a joint initiative between the Departments of Defense (DOD) and VAs’ vision care communities to manage an ocular care clinical data repository for post 9/11 ocular trauma victims. This role not only taught me about the unique world of government contracting but allowed me to begin cultivating my project management skills and develop relationships with a group of military leaders who had real-life experience working in hazardous environments with vulnerable populations. Their experiences inspired me and witnessing their work ethic drove me even further to find my stage.

While working for the VA full-time and finishing up my last year in the MPH program, I was required to obtain a public health internship before graduation. Through my growing eye care network, I had learned of the International Eye Foundation (IEF), a non-profit that aims to transform how eye care is delivered to prevent blindness and restore sight in middle- and low-income countries.

I had hit the jackpot. Combining my passion for eye care, healthcare, and traveling, at the age of 26, I thought I found my dream job. Through this role, I have been exposed to many key players in the field of blindness prevention and it has shaped my career outlook in ways I could never imagine. Some amazing projects that I have gotten the chance to work on include working with private and public sector eye health systems in Peru with the local Ministry of Health to enhance the referral network between tertiary, secondary, and primary hospitals, coordinating the distribution of $3M in Mectizan® for onchocerciasis (river blindness) treatment in West Africa, resulting in blindness prevention for 1.2M+ residents per year, and implementing at $17.5M grants management program for the United States Agency for Development Child Blindness Program.

I thought I was going to be working in eye care for the rest of my life. Even got a tattoo to represent my love for it. But working in this field has made me aware of so many more health disparities and outcomes out there, especially those that impact young women and girls as a result of loss of vision, like education, poverty, or higher rates of HIV/AIDS. The idea of exploring these new initiatives hits me with the same inspiration I first felt when I dissected that sheep’s eyeball in high school. My entire journey up until this point has been to learn everything I could about the world of eyes. And now, as I find myself wanting to turn the page, the next few are blank. They say things end for a reason; there is always something better coming forth, even if you can’t see it yet. This chapter has been a very large center of my life, but I’m excited to write the next one.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Eye Foundation.


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