Reaching out

January 15, 2006

Winchester, VA—For Robert W. Wehner, MD, PhD, volunteering his skills and talents is a meaningful way to spend his "after hours." While there is much to be said about taking a break from ophthalmology every now and then, Dr. Wehner also believes that using his own time to help his neighbors is a chance for him to feel satisfied and appreciated.

An outreach program with which Dr. Wehner is involved is called Remote Area Medical (RAM). The RAM Volunteer Corps is a non-profit airborne relief organization that provides free health, dental, and eye care; veterinary services; and technical and educational assistance to people in remote areas of the United States and the world. The organization was founded by Stan Brock.

Last July, RAM held its annual expedition at the Wise County Fairgrounds in Virginia-the heart of Appalachia. RAM's Web site ( http://www.ramusa.org/) reports that the group donated $1 million in medical care for 6,397 patients. RAM offered services ranging from basic eye exams to dermatologic and dental care to women's heath.

"She was an extremely nice monocular patient with a history of a severe ocular condition in the remaining eye. Since that successful surgery, she has been quite active in vision-related volunteer activities," he said. "She told me about her experience with RAM. I inquired and, subsequently, put together a 'retina team' to fill a gap in the volunteer forces. In the year 2005 we made our first trip to the Appalachia project.

"The trip was a huge success despite rainy and humid weather," he said. "Approximately 1,100 eye exams and 300 retina exams were completed in 2 1/2 days."

Worth the time

"They are very busy days," Dr. Wehner said. "Analysis of the retinal pathology data can take many weeks after the project."

Dr. Wehner's preparations started months in advance of the trip.

"Most of the local details are handled by RAM," he said. "But my preparation of the team, requests for medications and borrowed equipment, etc. take up to 4 days a month before the project.

"This project appeals to me because I think the needy and deserving patients are often in our own backyard," Dr. Wehner said. "Many projects seem well-publicized, but one hears less about our own neighbors who are in need. RAM's yearly focus on our Appalachian neighbors appealed to me. Also, RAM is a true volunteer project, and it continues to accommodate as many patients as possible, growing each year. It's no frills, just good, helpful volunteering."

He came away from the experience this year with a changed perspective.

"I have an appreciation for the sincerity and genuine attitudes of the people of Appalachia," Dr. Wehner said. "They mean exactly what they say. They care about family members-bringing them for exams, explaining that results are needed, comforting them when the news is bad, and often offering their suggestions.

"I suspect that waiting in line most of the night is a reflection of their real need," he continued. "With lower incomes, the chance for medical insurance is less. This is an opportunity to care for themselves and family members without expense. Their vocal gratitude may be a reflection of their 'mountain mores' or simply common courtesy; it was much appreciated by the whole retina team."