In October 2018, the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico School of Optometry executed a mission trip to Panama City, Panama with the goal of providing necessary vision screenings and vision care for Panama’s underserved population. The trip was a collaboration by the faculty of the optometry school’s faculty and the school’s core service clubs – Lions Club, VOSH and NOSA. Mission trips are considered a privilege among the service club members; each club was allotted several spots on the trip and club leaders were allowed to select students who had demonstrated involvement and leadership within each organization. The bulk of the group was composed of third-year students, along with several second and fourth years.

Preparing for the trip was arguably the first part of the journey. The mission was initially planned in Spring 2018 and executed thanks to a combination of hard work on behalf of IAUPR faculty and students as well as with the help of generous donations of glasses, funds, and medications from IAUPR as well as from companies such as Alcon, VSP, CooperVision and National Vision.

The trip lasted five days with students meeting at the airport at 6 am on Thursday, October 4th, to board a direct flight to Panama City. Upon landing, all students and staff were immediately driven to the shopping center where the screenings would be conducted. We were introduced to our host, Mario Him Chang, leader of the Lion’s Club Chapter in Panama along with a few local volunteers. Rounding the group out was the adorable one-year-old pug, Mushu, who we quickly dubbed the group mascot. Students and staff alike helped map out and set up stations and assemble equipment. A major component to the first day in Panama was planning exactly how the screenings would be conducted. 

The group conducted screenings Friday and Saturday starting around 8 am and ending around 8 pm. Each student and faculty member had an assigned station and each assignment lasted for half of a day. This arrangement allowed students to alternate between tasks and partake more fully in the experience. In some cases, students were called away from their initial stations and reassigned depending on need. Each patient traveled through the stations in an orderly manner before being seen at the optical. In addition to our assigned stations, the volume of patients prompted us to utilize an exam lane that was, fortunately, available, on another floor. Due to the fact that this was a mission trip and lacking in certain conveniences, students were able to experience a different dimension to patient care. In addition, students were exposed to a variety of conditions that they may not have been exposed to during traditional clinical training. 

Overall, the group saw nearly 500 patients and fit over two hundred glasses. Students and teachers alike found the trip extremely fulfilling and agreed that the trip was a success. Many of our Panamanian patients had never had the opportunity to see an eye care professional and for some, especially drivers, access to glasses meant safety not only for themselves but also those around them.

As a student who has had a chance to participate in the mission, I am extremely grateful for the experience which entailed immeasurable benefits in our development as future Doctors of Optometry and allowed me to give back in a major way.

The complete list of student and faculty attendees included Dr Hector Santiago, Dr Karen Gil, Dr Yvette Mercado, Dr Zulmaris Torres, Dr Marta Rivera, Dr Iris Cabello, Dr Ileana Vargas and Mr. Dick Robles and students Pegah Mozdbar, Bill Mayberry, Ashley Neslon, Tawnya Pham, Edgardo Ortiz, Tanya Pham, Twanya Ngo, Elias Carcamo, Aristides Adam Carcamo, Alexandra Garcia, Adia McDuffey, Andrea Horta, Irina Yakubin, Mariana Ruiz, Nicki Desai, Kevin Wah and Alfredo Mesiti.