Making a visible difference in nursing

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Many nurses enter the field because they want to make a difference and they know the care they provide can make significant changes in their patients' lives.

But many nurses are learning the differences they make can extend beyond healthcare facilities, and across state lines, countries, and continents. These differences can be eye opening—like the ones made by nurses volunteering with the global, nonprofit organization, Unite For Sight.

"The [Unite For Sight] nurses that travel abroad are able to see the effect that they are personally having [on patients] immediately," says Jennifer Staple, founder, president, and CEO of the organization. "Most of the patients that they see are completely blind. The nurses see them go from being completely blind, to having their vision entirely restored, and they participate in all aspects of the program."

Unite For Sight, which Staple started as a student organization in 2000 to provide basic vision screening and vision health education programs in New Haven, CT, has grown into a worldwide mission to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness. To date, more than 600,000 people have received eye care internationally and more than 16,655 sight-restoring surgeries have been coordinated and funded for patients living in extreme poverty in Africa and Asia.

Nurses' commitment is important to the program. "Nurses far outnumber doctors in almost every field of medicine," says James Clarke, MD, ophthalmologist at Crystal Eye Clinic in Ghana. "Therefore with more nurses involved, outreach activities can reach many more people and those who need to see doctors can be referred to see the doctors who are available."

Staple's vision

As a Yale University student, Staple worked in an eye doctor's office where she came in contact with many patients with eye diseases that could have been averted by early medical intervention. This, she says, is what motivated her to start Unite For Sight and expand it worldwide.

Through its international eye care outreach programs:

  • Nurses are sent to work in Ghana, India, and Honduras with local eye clinic staff, such as ophthalmic nurses, ophthalmologists, and optometrists, providing eye care in low-income communities.
  • The eye clinic's doctors and nurses provide community-based screening programs in rural villages, prescribing medications and eye glasses. Patients who require surgery, such as cataracts or more advanced care, are transported back to the eye clinic to receive a 15-minute sight-restoring operation.
  • Unite For Sight sponsors all eye care programs, providing patients with free surgery so no patient remains blind due to insufficient funds.

Funding from a number of sources make it possible for Unite For Sight to provide cataract services and medications, such as an annual global health conference, individual donors, and an annual golf tournament. One hundred percent of fundraising efforts from Unite For Sight volunteers also go directly to providing eye care services.

Volunteer seekers

Unite For Sight welcomes support from anyone from anywhere, but Staple says nurses are a vital part of the program.

For those looking to get involved, making a difference doesn't require a long-term commitment. International programs are for 10-day periods or more and are offered throughout the year. Some programs allow participants to select their own dates of departure.

But longer commitments allow nurses volunteering the opportunity to return to the same villages where they had provided screenings and cataract surgeries. "They can see their patients a month later and see how their lives really have been transformed by this cataract surgery," says Staple.

Staple says the application process starts online on the Unite For Sight Web site, where those interested in volunteering can read more about the organization and watch a number of videos to learn more about the volunteer's role.