2020 Optometry grad Dr. Kelly Deering finds her passion serving those in need

by | Feb 19, 2024

Deering works as an optometrist at Premier Eyecare Associates in northern Missouri and recently traveled to Kenya to provide patients with glasses and treat eye disease.
Dr. Kelly Deering

Dr. Kelly Deering fell in love with service work while a student in the College of Optometry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Kelly Deering)

Kelly Deering, OD, FAAO will never forget the moment she handed the prescription to her 60-year-old Kenyan patient after his very first eye exam.

“He hadn’t been able to read for two decades,” she said. “And I’ll just never forget putting his prescription in front of his eyes and having him look at the near card I held in front of him  and just the smile that lit up his face. I don’t speak Swahili, but you can tell you’re changing someone’s life.”

Deering, who fell in love with service work while a student in the College of Optometry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, recently returned from a two-week mission trip to Kenya, where her team served in pop-up eye clinics in the small towns of Shikunga, Bungoma and Iten. Along with three other American optometrists, she provided patients with glasses, treated eye disease and distributed glaucoma drops, steroid drops, antibiotics and antiviral pills. In total, the group saw just over 1,000 patients, and Deering said each one left a mark.

“There was a little boy with suspected trachoma, a chlamydial infection that is transferred through poor hygienic conditions by a black fly,” Deering said. “He actually wasn’t at our clinic; he was at an orphanage and one of our other volunteers noticed that he had this chronic red eye. They brought him to our hotel and after dinner we evaluated him. Trachoma is so contagious, but it just takes one pill to cure it. This child is an orphan in Kenya, doesn’t have resources and we were able to cure it after dinner. It was just really life-changing and such a cool opportunity. We really take eye care for granted in America.”

Deering, who grew up in Buckner, Missouri, and now works as an optometrist at Premier Eyecare Associates in northern Missouri, had her own first eye exam in first grade. Fitted with her first pair of glasses, she was finally able to see the details of the leaves on the trees and quickly decided she wanted to be an optometrist when she grew up. She majored in biology with a health science concentration at Missouri Western State University, where she also played tennis, and said UMSL was her first choice for optometry school.

Here, she developed her passion for service work in optometry as a member of the school’s chapter of Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, which aims to provide vision care in areas of the world where it is not affordable or obtainable. In 2019, she joined Dr. Diane Wilson on a mission trip to Haiti and promised herself she’d find more opportunities for service work as a doctor.

That opportunity finally presented itself last year when Deering attended a presentation by Dr. Kim Baxter, a retired optometrist in Nebraska, at a meeting of the Trenton Rotary Club. Baxter recently received a global grant to build the Craig Memorial Rotary Clinic in Kenya in memory of his late son, a student at the Southern College of Optometry who frequently joined him on mission work in Kenya. Designed to be sustainable for the community, the clinic will also offer eye care training for Kenyan medical students.

Moved to tears, Deering asked Baxter if he needed any more volunteers for the trip and vowed to join him in Kenya last month. She said the opportunity would not have been possible without the support of her colleagues at Premier Eyecare Associates, which she joined in 2020 as an associate optometrist. In January 2023, she became a part-owner of the practice.

In addition to treating patients across three locations in Brookfield, Chillicothe and Trenton, Deering started a specialty scleral contact lens clinic at Premier Eyecare and is working on adding orthokeratology to the practice. She is currently one of the only doctors in the area trained to fit patients with corneal abnormalities with scleral contact lenses, which are large, gas-permeable hard contact lenses that rest on the sclera (the whites of the eyes) instead of the cornea, as with soft contacts. The lenses are ideal for patients who have had trauma to the cornea, whether from keratoconus or complications with LASIK or PRK, which often cannot be corrected with glasses or soft contact lenses.

“Most people, when they think of contact lenses, are thinking of the soft lens that a lot of manufacturers make – the Acuvue Oasys, Biofinity, Air Optix,” Deering said. “But soft contact lenses don’t correct the vision of every patient. Hard, gas-permeable corneal contact lenses – what we think of as the original contact – do a better job correcting vision for patients who don’t have a regular-shaped cornea.

“I’ve had grown men cry when they put these lenses on and they’re seeing 20/20 for the first time in decades because they had keratoconus and they were first fit in soft lenses and they just kind of tolerated that vision. These lenses are life-changing for people who have had irregular corneal surfaces from either conditions that they have or trauma that they’ve had to the eye.”

Passionate about continuing to expand her knowledge and staying up to date on new technology and advancements in the field of optometry, Deering is heavily involved in several professional organizations. She currently serves as a trustee for the Missouri Optometric Association, representing doctors from small towns across northern Missouri, and also serves on the MOA Governmental Affairs Committee. In October, she obtained her fellowship in the American Academy of Optometry after an intense three-year process of writing case reports about her most challenging patients.

In 2023, Deering was recognized for her work in the field when she was named the Young OD of the Year for the Missouri Optometric Association. She said the award took her by complete surprise.

“I’ve been serving for three years and at first I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘Does my voice matter?’ All these things that you think about whenever you join a new organization and you’re trying to learn the ropes,” she said. “But then you find your voice, you get to know the people you represent, and you put your fresh ideas out there. When you’re with a team of very strong leaders in optometry, you find your place.”

Looking forward, Deering is excited to reconnect with UMSL’s College of Optometry, as Premier Eyecare recently became an externship site. UMSL students will start rotating through the practice at the end of the year, shadowing Deering and her colleagues, who practice at five locations across northern Missouri.

“I’m really excited to give back to UMSL that way and to create an educational experience for optometry students,” Deering said. “I really enjoyed externship during my time at UMSL because it taught me, ‘Alright, I want to pull this from this doctor,’ ‘I think that’s a great way to take care of people,’ or even, ‘This example isn’t my style.’

“I feel so privileged to have been able to get my education in-state at UMSL; it’s a great university. The faculty and leadership team were all so supportive and integral in influencing the doctor that I’ve become. And then to be able to provide vision, serve people and get to know so many different neighbors in my community and take care of them, their kids, their parents and their grandparents – it’s so rewarding.”

Heather Riske

Heather Riske