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Doctor's vision: Eyeglasses for the underserved

As a University of Iowa medical student in 2006, Jeffrey Lynch, MD, MPH, volunteered in Peru where he witnessed local residents sifting through boxes of donated eyeglasses, trying them on, and looking back to their families for approval.

“Who knows if the lenses were even in the ballpark of their prescription,” he says.

In 2011, during his ophthalmology residency at St. Louis University, Lynch created ReSpectacle, a nonprofit organization that collects used eyeglasses and distributes them to underserved individuals in the United States and abroad.

ReSpectacle helps people find used eyeglasses that match their prescription strength, not just eyeglasses with frames they like. At www.respectacle.org, users with a lens prescription can easily browse a database of about 1,500 eyeglasses, submit an order if they find a match, and receive the glasses free by mail.

Volunteers in several U.S. cities collect and catalog donated eyeglasses. The ReSpectacle chapter in Iowa, where Lynch recently completed a pediatric ophthalmology fellowship at UI Hospitals and Clinics, is led by UI medical students Tyler Risma and Katie Lynch, Jeff’s sister. The chapter has over 20 active volunteers.

As leader of the student group UISight, Risma encourages its members to volunteer on an occasional Saturday when the ReSpectacle group meets to inventory new donations.

“Students have the opportunity to meet health care professionals and learn how to use specialized equipment, like a lensometer for reading lens prescriptions,” Katie Lynch says. The sessions where volunteers inventory donations also allow her to touch lives all over the world.

“With each donation, there's the potential that I could be helping a person in a Third World country whom I'll never meet, or the next patient I see at UI Hospitals and Clinics. There aren't many ways that I could spend my time to help so many people,” she says.

Risma monitors the ophthalmology and pediatric ophthalmology departments at UI Hospitals and Clinics where donated eyeglasses are collected. ReSpectacle hopes to start accepting used glasses at drop-off sites in libraries, grocery stores, and optical shops around the Iowa City area.

To date, ReSpectacle has shipped glasses to seven states, mostly in the Midwest, and five countries including Kenya, where Benjamin Roberts, MD, is a missionary ophthalmologist at Tenwek Mission Hospital in Bomet, Kenya. He treats many patients who cannot afford eyeglasses, and has worked with Jeff Lynch to arrange for bulk orders of eyeglasses that match his patients’ prescriptions.

“So far, ReSpectacle has been a great help. We hope to use this service much more in the coming days,” Roberts says.

ReSpectacle’s shipping costs are supported by grants from the Mildred Brady and Rena Martin Charitable Eye Foundation and the Saint Louis University Hospital Auxiliary, as well as private donations received through the ReSpectacle website.

Jeff Lynch, who moved to a practice in St. Paul, Minn., upon completion of his fellowship in June, won the inaugural Kolder Humanitarian Award from the UI Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences earlier this year for his work with ReSpectacle.

Keith Carter, MD, chair of ophthalmology, supports the ongoing involvement of UI medical students and ReSpectacle, as well as Jeff Lynch’s initiative.

“It’s exciting to see one of our former trainees address an important health issue. We wish him continued success and will support the project in whatever way we can,” Carter says.

Want to donate eyeglasses?

UI Hospitals and Clinics accepts used eyeglasses for ReSpectacle at the reception desk in the Primary Eye Care Clinic in Pomerantz Family Pavilion (Elevator L, Level 1). ReSpectacle chapters around the country receive about 150 eyeglasses each month, but not all donated pairs can be reused. ReSpectacle does accept eyeglasses in poor condition but cannot redistribute donated eyeglasses with extremely scratched lenses or bent, broken, and unwearable frames.

Story Source: UI Health Care Media Relations, 200 Hawkins Drive, Room W319 GH, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1009. Written by Laurie Lehman, laurie-lehman@uiowa.edu.

Media Contact: Jennifer Brown, jennifer-l-brown@uiowa.edu, (319) 356-7124