My four years of optometry school have been a whirlwind. I have learned a lot since I started school, not just about optometry but also about what I am capable of doing. Throughout all of my classes, labs, and clinical rotations I have grown professionally and personally.
For the past three months, I have spent a clinical rotation in Bethel, Alaska. When I decided to come to Bethel, I was unsure of how it would be. After all, it is very isolated there, with a population of only 6500 compared to the 4.5 million people in the greater Boston area. Bethel is located in the southwest region of Alaska, and the clinic serves an area the size of the state of Oregon. There are no roads in or out of Bethel, so all travel is by airplane and boat, with the only option in the winter being by airplane. I figured it would be a test of what I could do. What I found was a different world. I was flying to different villages in the region, setting up clinic lanes, and performing exams. The populations of these villages ranged from 75 people to about 500, with no access to the outside world aside from air travel. With the equipment that we brought, we would set up in either a clinic or a school building and we had the capabilities to perform complete eye exams, including testing the patients’ refractive errors and doing a complete ocular health assessment. It was very rewarding being able to provide eye care to a population that would otherwise not be able to afford to be seen. I had the opportunity to travel to 6 different villages, and in those visits, which spanned about 2 weeks of time total, performed about 250 eye exams and 200 pediatric screenings.
The people that I have met in Bethel, including my preceptors, fellow interns, other health care professionals, and the native population have all been exceedingly nice. The lifestyle in Alaska is more relaxed and paced much more slowly than in the cities that I have lived in. I learned to enjoy the simpler things to life, like cooking, relaxing with a book (easier to do when there is no more studying for my classes!), or going for a walk. Yes, even in the -50⁰ temperatures we still walked around town. We also spent time learning the native culture and participating in various community events.
This rotation has been just one of the many great experiences that I have had at NECO. I was lucky to have this opportunity, but there are many other opportunities available for a wide variety of experiences, depending on what you are interested in doing. I have had the opportunity to rotate through the Indian Health Service clinic as well as numerous Community Health Centers around Boston, two different Veterans Affairs hospitals and the a few different sites of the school’s clinic. Through each of these places I have come out a better clinician with an increased skill set to perform primary care exams as well as fitting contact lenses, working with the pediatric population, and working with low vision patients. I can truly say that the school has shaped how I will be as an optometrist for the rest of my career.