by Satina Richardson

Prior to applying to optometry school, Dustin Scott was a Community Eye Care work study student, the community service arm of UAB Eye Care. This experience allowed him to witness firsthand the impact that visits to the Black Belt to provide free eye and vision care had on the communities.

Now a third year student at the UAB School of Optometry, Scott participates in Black Belt visits as a part of his clinical learning experience. Scott remains so in awe of how these events affect people that, although his studies are demanding, he pursued the idea of having a clinic in York, AL.

Janene Sims, OD, PhD, CEC director said, “Dustin asked me if we could hold this event in his hometown. The CEC planning team and York’s Mayor along with his staff held a Zoom planning meeting and the event took shape over the next few months.”

York as a location came to mind because Scott has roots there. His father’s side of the family is from there, and most of them live in York and the surrounding areas. Also, he knew there is a need for the care that CEC provides which includes free comprehensive eye exams, glasses, and referrals for additional care, if necessary.

York is a small town of 2,500 located in west Alabama’s Sumter County, one of the poorest counties in Alabama and in nation year-over-year. According to 2020 Census data, the median household income was less than $30,000. The racial make-up of York is 87 percent African American, 9 percent White and three percent other races. 

“African Americans are at an increased risk for several systemic conditions, and ocular diseases that can threaten vision, but this area has very little access to quality general healthcare, let alone eye care,” Scott said. “Eye care often takes a backseat on the priority list.”

The first Black Belt in York was held on September 10 at the York West End Junior High School. CEC interns, residents, faculty, and staff saw 53 patients in just five hours. Appointment slots filled quickly. Conditions discovered included central retinal vein occlusion, hypertensive retinopathy, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, pupil abnormality, and undiagnosed hypertension—optometrists can help detect systemic conditions including hypertension, diabetes, and even certain cancers with a dilated eye exam.

“For some patients, we provided them with their first eye exam and pair of glasses,” Scott said. “I hoped that we would provide help that people needed. I also wished that this event would not be a singular trip and that we would be able to come back and help more people.”

Scott’s wish has come true because there will be another York CEC clinic held in January.

Local family members attended to support Scott’s efforts with his mother flying from San Diego, CA, and his brothers from Houston, TX.

“I attended Optometry school with the desire to help people,” Scott said. “If you took a random sample of people and asked them what sense would be the most devastating to lose, I'd bet majority of them would say sight. It's truly rewarding to help people with the sense we all undoubtedly value.”