HEI Team Members Serve More Than 350 Patients During Mission Trip to the Dominican Republic

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Dr. Penny Asbell, (back row, third from right) led a team of medical professionals on a rural mission trip to Los Llanos, Dominican Republic, earlier this month. (Photo provided by The Hawaiian Eye Foundation)

Giving back to the community has always been a priority for the team members of the Hamilton Eye Institute (HEI) at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. HEI has conducted mission trips for years, and continues to promote healthy eye care around the world.

Penny A. Asbell, MD, FACS, MBA, FARVO, the new HEI director and Barrett G. Haik Endowed Chair for Ophthalmology in the College of Medicine at UTHSC, along with HEI resident Joshua Little, MD, led a team of medical professionals on a rural mission trip to Los Llanos, Dominican Republic, earlier this month. Many residents of the Dominican Republic struggle with blindness and cataracts, but have limited access to proper health care.

Dr. Asbell and Dr.Jeff Rutgard with a patient after surgery. (Photo provided by the Hawaiian Eye Foundation)

“The opportunity to help people to see was incredible – our team from the Hawaiian Eye Foundation really made a difference, and all of us benefited from the experience,” Dr. Asbell said. “Global missions not only help those with limited access to medical care, but expose our UTHSC residents to the joys and benefits of participating in medical mission work.”

The mission trip was sponsored by the Hawaiian Eye Foundation (HEF), which provides eye care to rural areas in need. The organization conducts 25 to 30 missions per year, offering not only eye exams and surgeries, but also training for local health care professionals and future mission workers. A new area of focus for HEF is Manual Small Incision Cataract Surgery (MSICS).

The mission team served over 350 impoverished patients and conducted 100 eye surgeries at the Hospital Municipal Dr. Pedro Maria Santana. In addition to Drs. Asbell and Little, team members included: Tatiana Deveney, MD, Dr. Asbell’s daughter and chief resident at the Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan; Jeff Rutgard, MD, HEF mission director and MSICS trainer; Darrell Williams, MD, HEF adviser and Trinity Health, North Dakota, ophthalmologist; Donovan Reed, MD, San Antonio Uniformed Services health resident and Captain in the United States Air Force; as well as seven volunteers.

“Dr. Asbell has volunteered with HEF for over a decade as cornea chief of our Southeast Asian Training Programs in Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Yangon, Myanmar,” HEF Executive Director Darrah Kauhane said. “Her daughter also joined us in Myanmar last year. This mission was the first time that both of them joined HEF on a rural surgical mission.”

HEI resident Dr. Josh Little examines a patient. (Photo provided by The Hawaiian Eye Foundation)

“Drs. Penny, Tati, and Josh were extremely positive and flexible — a pleasure to work with,” Kauhane said. “They shared their compassion with each patient, were eager to teach and serve, and did so with smiles on their faces. We welcome future opportunities to share mission work with many more Hamilton Eye residents and faculty. Thanks to Dr. Asbell’s leadership, UTHSC is making its mark on rural, blind communities.”

Brian Fowler, MD, ophthalmic surgeon and vice chair of Clinical Operations at HEI, said, “We are so fortunate in the United States to have access to excellent health care. Our surgeons support surgical missions throughout the world, including Haiti, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Panama. These missions are founded in the very belief that we can change the world, not just one patient at a time, but through training other doctors and health care providers to build sustainable health care systems in their own communities. We don’t want them to rely on us. We want to lift their communities up so they can care for their own while we are away. Through this approach, the world gets better faster.”