On April 14, the OHSU Casey Eye Institute community gathered to celebrate our growing collaboration with the health care community in American Samoa.
Our initial program with the good people of American Samoa is wrapping up this month as Dr. Benjamin Siatu’u finishes his intensive ophthalmology training in Oregon. A surgeon from American Samoa, he has spent the last four years at OHSU acquiring the specialized skills needed to provide eye care in this distant U.S. territory. He will be returning to his home in the South Pacific to finish his training with support from Casey Eye faculty members.
The ceremony not only honored Dr. Siatu’u’s accomplishments, but marks the beginning of Casey’s long-term partnership with the medical community in American Samoa – a relationship that signifies a major step forward in our mission to address avoidable blindness abroad.
When it comes to eye care, American Samoans are arguably one of the most underserved populations in the United States.
During my three years as an ophthalmologist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Tropical Medical Center – the territory’s only health care facility – I saw firsthand the immense challenges posed by the region’s isolation, and the unique health problems of its people. Nearly half of the adults in American Samoa suffer from diabetes and are at risk of losing eyesight from its complications.
American Samoa also has one of the highest rates in the world of pterygium: an eye growth on the cornea caused from sun exposure. These and other conditions, such as cataract and eye trauma, contribute to the islands’ large burden of eye disease and vision loss.
Dr. “Ben” (as he likes to be called) will be one of only two eye doctors serving American Samoa’s 55,000 residents, and its only eye surgeon. While his background, medical skills and strength of character make him ideally suited for his new role, he will also need the backing of a high quality health care system to successfully care for his people.
Working with Dr. Siatu’u and relying on his expertise as a Samoan practitioner, the Casey Eye Institute is partnering with American Samoa to build up the other critical components of a regional eye care program.
For example, we are designing training programs for clinical and operating room staff. These programs will let Dr. Ben’s team ramp up the quality and efficiency of patient care in the hospital there. We will teach technicians how to properly maintain delicate equipment like slit lamps and surgical microscopes, which can be easily damaged from the islands’ humid climate and periodic electrical surges.
Public health education and eye health screening campaigns are also in the works, as the local public health and community groups on these islands welcome Casey as a proven and trusted partner in the territory.
Our U.S. – based ophthalmology residency program is a key element in this collaboration.
Casey residents who opt for an international elective in American Samoa will hone their diagnostic and treatment skills in a diverse health care setting with limited medical resources. These residents will have the opportunity to treat patients with unusual and often severe eye diseases, and to build surgical abilities where surgical services are in dire need.
To help fund these programs, we are seeking grants from the USDA, World Health Organization and other agencies. We also rely on philanthropic support here in Oregon to keep this program moving forward.
This is an exciting new chapter in Casey’s outreach efforts, an idea conceived and nurtured by our Chairman, David Wilson, M.D., and enthusiastically embraced by the Casey’s faculty, staff and ophthalmology residents.
American Samoa may be on the other side of the equator, but we are working together to reach our shared vision of ending avoidable blindness for many years to come.
Mitchell Brinks, M.D., M.P.H., is assistant professor of ophthalmology at OHSU Casey Eye Institute, where he specializes in comprehensive ophthalmology and is co-director of the International Ophthalmology program. His international teaching and research activities have taken him to Cambodia, Bhutan, East Timor, Guatemala the Marshall Islands and the Samoas.