St. Vincent's House Eye Clinic

Dr Ahmed Elkeeb

UTMB-staffed eye clinic a ray of hope for uninsured

Ophthalmologists from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB Health) have helped hundreds of uninsured patients at the St. Vincent's House Eye Clinic on Galveston Island. For more than a decade UTMB Health eye specialists have volunteered their time to staff the only free eye specialty clinic for the uninsured in Galveston County.

Every Wednesday night doctors and residents from the UTMB Health Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences care for patients of all ages. Some of the patients would have lost their vision without medical care, according to Dr. Ahmed Elkeeb, the eye clinic's medical director.

Expanding services

Elkeeb, also a UTMB Health ophthalmologist, explained that the clinic's core mission is to prevent permanent vision loss stemming from diseases such as diabetes and glaucoma.

Under Dr. Elkeeb's leadership, the clinic has expanded its services and treatments, which include laser treatments, injections, screening services, treatment for acute eye emergencies and follow-up care after surgery. For a limited number of urgent cases, the department can fund surgeries.

Elkeeb said, "We are able to provide vision-saving laser treatments to patients with diabetic retinopathy due to the generous long-term loan of laser equipment by Synergetics Houston."

The need is great

Appointments are booked months in advance, according to A.J. Halvorsen, St. Vincent's clinical liaison. Despite the busy schedule and numerous patients seen, patients with emergent or advanced cases of visual loss may have expedited appointments.

"This eye clinic is a huge service to the community and to society. People with a chronic illness can continue to hold down jobs. If they go blind, they have to rely on Social Security and disability payments," Halvorsen said.

One patient at St. Vincent's had lost an eye in a car accident. A crane operator by profession, the man could not work because he had a detached retina and was losing sight in his remaining eye.

His wife was pregnant, his house was in foreclosure and he did not have health insurance.

Using funding from the department's indigent care budget, the patient recieved surgery to restore the his sight. Now the man is able to work and keep his home.

The ophthalmologists routinely give hope to patients who have lost all hope.

Another St. Vincent's patient was a woman who had acute vision loss in one eye. With no insurance, she came to St. Vincent's after an ophthalmologist in another city told her she was going blind from a central retinal vein occlusion, a disorder affecting the blood supply of the back of the eye.

We were able to rehabilitate her sight after injecting medications into her eye. Her vision improved from barely seeing shadows to being able to crochet again.

More funding needed

While such stories are inspiring, the reality is that the need far exceeds the resources. UTMB eye doctors could help even more patients with donations to buy more medicine and equipment.

A $500 donation buys a vial of medication (Avastin) that can help to save the vision of 100 people. Two thousand dollars will restore the vision of someone with cataracts. We have a huge need for more medication, equipment and funding for surgeries.

Dr. Elkeeb believes that the eye clinic is making a positive difference, even with its limited resources.

"Everyone deserves to have good health care. We're able to provide uninsured patients a level of care comparable to what they would receive in an insurance-based clinic."

Dr. Kevin Merkley, department chairman, said, "Preventing blindness makes a huge difference for these individuals and the community. I am proud of our doctors and residents who volunteer their expertise and time to help."

Michael Jackson, St. Vincent's House executive director, added, "The long partnership we've had with the department of ophthalmology has been invaluable. These doctors and residents are A-1 in my book."