by Caleb Jones

Eye and vision care are vital to maintaining your health and wellness. Comprehensive eye exams are recom­mended at all stages in life and millions of people benefit yearly from the services offered by optometrists. Despite the logistical obstacles COVID has posed to eye care pro­fessionals, the reality is that people need comprehensive eye care to live healthy lives. That’s why at Community Eye Care (CEC), the goal has remained clear: provide quality eye care to the uninsured and underinsured.

CEC is the community service arm of UAB Eye Care. Led by Dr. Janene Sims, director, the program sends clinical faculty and optometry students throughout Birmingham and the state of Alabama to provide free comprehensive eyecare to underserved communities.

The program’s work has become even more important as the pandemic continues to exacerbate health disparities, causing many people to lose their livelihoods and vision insurance. Simply put, “folks don’t disappear when some­thing happens to the world,” Sims said. “Some people have conditions that require their eyes to be checked every year, and they depend on us to make it happen.”

To adapt to the current times, CEC had to alter many of its operations to be able to comply with COVID-19 safety regulations while still being able to do quality work.

For example: every year the program holds an event called Gift of Sight, where free eye exams and glasses are provided to eligible members in the community. The annual event is essential for patients who otherwise would be unable to receive eyecare.

“In previous years, we would only do Gift of Sight one week,” Sims explained. “In 2020, since our space was limit­ed due to social distancing demands, we made up for it by using the entire month of November and the first week of December. We called it Gift of Sight Season, instead of Gift of Sight Week. This year we scheduled patients for the first two weeks in December."

The altered format allowed Gift of Sight to continue, and the expanded month-long timeline in 2020 allowed CEC to see 277 patients—more than they were able to help pre-pandemic. In 2021, 212 patients received care during the two weeks of the eighth annual event.

By implementing new social distancing guidelines and even providing mobile drive through clinics, CEC was able to safely continue visiting senior centers, pre-schools, clinics, and Black Belt communities to provide eye care throughout 2021 while the pandemic persisted.

Through it all, UAB School of Optometry students have been able to grow, adapt, and become better clinicians. According to Sims, CEC offers them the opportunity to sharpen their skills in real world situations where they may have to be creative to succeed.

Whether it be learning how to communicate with non­verbal children, or simply getting used to treating all differ­ent types of people, CEC offers students real world clinical experiences and lessons that can’t necessarily be learned in a classroom. “Community Eye Care makes you think out­side the box. You can’t always do things traditionally.”

Sims said she is excited about the future of CEC and says they will continue to adapt and add new locations to better meet the needs of the community.