by Satina Richardson
 
The COVID-19 pandemic caused rapid change beginning in March when all classes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the UAB School of Optometry were moved online and clinical education was suspended. UAB Eye Care had to close, as did eye care clinics across the nation. These closures left fourth year students wondering if and when externships would take place. 
 
A total of 19 students had externships affected by the pandemic and needed assistance finding new opportunities between the Summer and Fall-II semesters.
 
“Issues were anticipated this year, so we check in with our preceptors more than in the past to make sure we cannot offer any additional support,” said Keshia Elder, OD, MS, FAAO, externship program director. “Planning ahead enables us to quickly assist students who were impacted by any externship site changes.”
 
Elder and her team also check in with the externship students on a weekly basis to make sure they feel safe and do not need anything from UABSO. Monitoring quarantined externship students to make sure they are provided with educational experiences when they are not onsite remains necessary. Quarantined students are tasked with case reports, patient case presentations and online presentations.
 
Brook Keaton, class of 2021, was one of the students affected by a site change. Her externship had been arranged three months in advance. However, 2-3 weeks prior to her start date, Keaton’s preceptor informed her that it would no longer be possible to host a student. 
 
The situation left her anxious and confused. Elder and Cynthia Perry, externship program coordinator, stepped in immediately. With their help, Keaton was able to secure a new placement at Salisbury Eyecare and Eyewear in Salisbury, NC, three days later. 
 
Although no plans were in place to host a student, Melanie Denton, OD, MBA, FAAO, owner, agreed to be a preceptor. 
 
“I'm always up for mentoring students, and I think that in-person exams are so, so important to a student’s development into a competent physician,” Denton said. “So I just kind of felt for Brook that her plans had fallen through and I wanted her to have that clinical experience if she could rather than having it be all telemedicine.” 
 
For six weeks, Keaton worked closely with Denton, observing the clinical aspect of optometry and how the seasoned optometrist communicated with her patients. 
 
“One of my favorite things about Dr. Denton’s practice was the doctor-patient relationship,” Keaton said. “I was so intrigued by how well Dr. Denton could speak to her patients and all of the knowledge that she had to offer them.” 
 
Denton said that she is an entrepreneur and business owner with a heart for education. She believes there is something different about her practice because it is independent and medically-based. Her goal is to show students that this type of practice is possible. 
 
“I love for externs to see medically-based patient care in action plus witness a high-functioning team,” Denton said. “I try to spend a lot of time educating about the business side as well as give them a view into how I cultivate my team culture.” 
 
Keaton said that she is considering a residency because of her experience with Denton. 
 
“I only hope I can become as good of a clinician as she is.”