Dedicated undergraduate volunteer leads effort to expand care for Filipino immigrants
Prishha Thiagarajan, a student volunteer at the UC Davis medical school’s Bayanihan free clinic, felt helpless.
When uninsured patients fared poorly on eye exams over the past three years, she would hand them a voucher for free glasses. But when they needed treatment for more complex vision issues, she recommended they visit an ophthalmologist because the clinic didn’t have one.
Only one problem – patients couldn’t afford the specialty care.
So, she, and other students, set out to find an ophthalmologist for the clinic.
The students emailed more than 50 Sacramento-region ophthalmologists, pleading with them to donate a few hours every few months for a good cause: provide eye care to a student-run clinic that primarily serves Filipino-American immigrants and their families. Dozens of doctors didn’t bother replying or turned down the requests.
But finally, two doctors agreed to help. As a result, Bayanihan opened an ophthalmology clinic last month.
“I’m incredibly proud of creating this clinic and so grateful for everyone’s support,” said Thiagarajan, a fourth-year undergraduate student at UC Davis where she’s majoring in neurobiology, physiology and behavior.
“The lack of ophthalmologic care is not just impacting the patients’ day-to-day lives, like not being able to drive, or walk, or read a book,” she said. “These patients would tell us, ‘I want to be able to see my grandchildren, play with them, take them to the park.’ This experience has really shown me how integral vision is to all aspects of somebody’s life.”
Dozens of volunteers serve at Bayanihan Clinic
Thiagarajan, who grew up in Santa Clara, where she volunteered in hospitals during high school, got involved in Bayanihan in early 2020, just months after enrolling at UC Davis.
Dozens of volunteers – undergraduates, medical students, physician assistant students and doctors – spend their Saturdays caring for medically underserved patients at the Rancho Cordova clinic.
Some, like Thiagarajan, aspire to enter medical school. Others take different career paths but are just as eager to give back to the community during their college years.
Thiagarajan, the ophthalmology clinic coordinator, helps identify patients who require specialized eye care. Student Francesca Apaya oversees the distribution of vouchers for eyeglasses courtesy of VSP, the locally headquartered vision benefits company.
Thiagarajan has always felt good about helping patients access optometrists but felt bad when the patients learned they had cataracts or possibly glaucoma and needed to be examined by an ophthalmologist, which is a medical or osteopathic doctor.
“It made me feel, honestly, a little helpless,” Thiagarajan said. “Because if I were in their shoes and didn’t have insurance, I would either have to accept the condition or decide whether to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars out of pocket to see an ophthalmologist.”
Some of the older patients are at risk of blindness
Bayanihan Clinic started 20 years ago to provide free medical care to veteranos – Filipinos who fought alongside U.S. troops in World War II and were promised veterans benefits that haven’t fully materialized.
The veterans are aging. They’ve developed severe eye diseases that have gone untreated, putting them at risk of blindness.
Thiagarajan and other students envisioned a clinic where uninsured patients can be screened and treated for diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, glaucoma and other conditions.
She presented her proposal to the clinic’s student leaders and medical director, Luz Guerrero.
“When she approached us with this idea, I was so excited and approved the project instantly,” said Guerrero, Bayanihan’s longtime preceptor, or mentor, and retired Kaiser Permanente physician. “Prishha’s work was impressive.”
Thiagarajan took to Google to find ophthalmologists. At one point, she grew discouraged with rejection after rejection.
Then a near-miracle happened.
“We finally got a yes after getting so many nos,” Thiagarajan said. “I couldn’t believe it!”
The new clinic has two ophthalmologists and can use more
Thiagarajan's yes came from Barbara J. Arnold, a private practice ophthalmologist who used to treat Filipino war veterans. Arnold became the ophthalmology clinic’s preceptor.
Meanwhile, Rebekah Smith, a second-year UC Davis medical student who aspires to be an ophthalmologist, happened to meet a physician, David Telander, on a Christian Medical & Dental Association boating trip, and he also agreed to help.
After months of planning, the ophthalmology clinic opened on Oct. 15 with five very grateful patients.
“This new eye clinic marks the beginning of a vision turned into reality,” Guerrero said.
The clinic will be open every few months and by appointment only. It is located inside the student-run Shifa Clinic in Sacramento, which has a slit lamp, a tabletop microscope to examine eyes.
“We are thankful to Shagufta Yasmeen, the Shifa Clinic medical director, for allowing us to use their clinic space and equipment,” Guerrero said. In addition, the UC Davis Health Eye Center provides eye drops for dilation and ophthalmoscopes, the handheld instruments that stream light into pupils.
“Eventually,” Guerrero said, pondering into the near future, “the ophthalmology clinic will be held at Bayanihan, once we receive our own screening and diagnostic tools.”
By then, Thiagarajan hopes to recruit more ophthalmologists to join the effort.
But for now, the startup clinic has given her a greater appreciation for the important lessons from her public health lectures and textbooks.
“As undergrads, we hear a lot about health disparities, health inequalities, social determinants and how all these factors impact people’s access to care,” Thiagarajan said. “Seeing these concepts play out in real life is so fascinating.”
This article was updated December 8 to reflect that other students were also instrumental in establishing the ophthalmology clinic.