Optometry graduate Jacob Travis learns to meet patients where they are through humanitarian work in Kansas City and Alaska

Jacob Travis

Dr. Jacob Travis, who recently graduated from the College of Optometry at UMSL, spent the spring semester working in Nome, Alaska, at Last Frontier Eye Care and Tundra Health Initiative, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that seeks to provide quality eye care to the children of rural Alaska at no cost to enrolled students within the Norton Sound region. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Travis)

Dr. Jacob Travis has always been drawn to humanitarian work, frequently participating in faith-based mission work while growing up. That’s part of what drew him to the College of Optometry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in the first place after graduating from the University of Missouri–Columbia in 2019.

But the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans, squashing any chances for Travis and his fellow optometry students to engage in humanitarian efforts throughout the community during their first few years in the program.

That finally changed this past fall, when the College of Optometry was able to return to its charitable work for the first time in several years. In October, Travis was one of two fourth-year optometry students to participate in a OneSight Essilor Luxottica Foundation humanitarian eye clinic in Kansas City.

Along with fellow student Tiffany Lee – the president of UMSL’s chapter of Student Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity – Travis worked alongside a handful of licensed optometrists to serve hundreds of children from underserved areas in Kansas City.

During the clinic, they conducted full eye exams, including refraction tests and ocular health assessments, and dispensed eye drops when needed. If deemed necessary, the children participating in the clinic were given a free pair of glasses. Of the 509 kids they saw during that time, the need rate for glasses was 94%.

“It’s a really innovative program that serves some of the more underserved areas in Kansas City,” Travis said. “It definitely underscored that not all people that need glasses show up at the eye doctor. Sometimes you have to take services to places that you know people already are. I think meeting people in their place rather than expecting them to come to you is something that’s hard to learn and hard to teach but is vital when learning to care for new patients.”

Dr. Tareq Nabhan, an assistant clinical professor at UMSL and one of three national member optometrists serving on OSELF’s Clinical Advisory Panel, is lead optometrist for the Kansas City clinics. He made note of the thoughtful and compassionate way Travis interacted with patients during the clinic.

“Jacob is an excellent student clinician and pulls from his many different skillsets in caring for patients,” Nabhan said. “His ability to connect with patients on a number of levels will serve him well. Moreover, Jacob is an excellent communicator, and today more than ever, thoughtful and effective communication is a requirement to improve health care outcomes.”

In addition to underscoring the importance of meeting patients where they are, Travis said the OnesSight Essilor Luxottica clinic helped demonstrate for him how corporations can give back to their communities.

His experience this past semester, meanwhile, showed him what that work can look like in a private practice setting. As part of his fourth-year experience, Travis spent the spring semester working in Nome, Alaska, at Last Frontier Eye Care and Tundra Health Initiative, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that seeks to provide quality eye care to the children of rural Alaska at no cost to enrolled students within the Norton Sound region. Over the past five months, Travis has traveled to different rural villages in the bush to treat children in need of eye care, providing comprehensive vision screenings, eye exams and glasses.

“This is what life looks like when real people – private practitioners, private doctors – have to find their way to give back and kind of keep doing what they want to be doing while also making enough money to live,” he said. “OneSight paid for hotel rooms and for flights or gas out – it was luxury. There, we slept on cots and sleeping bags that we packed with us everywhere we went.”

Throughout his experience in Alaska, Travis was exposed to patients dealing with completely different circumstances than he was used to, which forced him to think more critically about his approach as a health care professional.

“People in western Alaska – and rural communities and native people all over the U.S. – have been on some level marginalized or taken advantage of in very different ways,” he said. “You have to be really aware of those things and be thoughtful – way more thoughtful – in your approach than just showing up and saying, ‘Hey, come see us. We’ll take care of you.’

“It’d be kind of like in Missouri, if you’re trying to go into rural communities, don’t go when calves are being born or crops are ready to harvest because people can’t come to get their eyes checked. Don’t expect farmers to come to your eye clinic when they’re supposed to be making their living for a year.”

Travis, who returned from Alaska earlier this month and took part in commencement on May 12, knows his experiences both in Kansas City and Alaska will serve him well in his future career. While he’s still finalizing his next steps, he plans for humanitarian work to continue to play a large role in his personal and professional life for years to come. Knowing the impact this work had on him personally, Travis is also interested in helping to strengthen opportunities for other students to participate in humanitarian work and engage with patients in real-world settings.

“I think it’s really important to integrate and make a priority the necessity for giving back and not just doing it for making money,” he said. “So, not just expecting students to show up to some after-school meeting and saying, ‘These are the people that want to volunteer,’ but rather encouraging people to go on those trips and making it an enriching experience for students. I think it would be really fun, helpful and educational. It’s a pretty impactful experience for students from any walk of life. I did not grow up with much money, so it was impactful for me because I was able to help people similarly to how others helped me. But in the same way it can be a more humbling experience for those who didn’t have to go through the same experiences. It’s a positive no matter what an individual’s life experiences have been.”


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