Eye care professional offers highly discounted services to people in need

November 1, 2009

One optometrist, upon realizing that in the past year, 25% of his patients had lost jobs or health insurance, found a way to give back.

Several months ago, a man in his late 30s came to F Y Eye Optometry Center in Encino, CA, with his wife and two children. Apparently, he had fallen asleep while wearing his contact lenses and, when he woke up, one eye was bloodshot red, sensitive to light, and extremely painful.

After examining the patient's eye, Sol Regwan, OD, owner and sole practitioner at F Y Eye, discovered that the man developed an ulcer in his eye, then prescribed the appropriate regimen in treating his condition.

The scenario seemed all too common among his patients, Dr. Regwan noted. He said that during the past year, 25% of his patients lost their job and health care insurance. At 11%, the area's unemployment rate was already higher than the nation's average while job growth was –4.9%. To make matters worse, he said that nearly 90% of his unemployed patients experienced changes in their prescription, but couldn't afford new lenses.

Crossroads

That 30-something-year-old man was the turning point for Dr. Regwan. When times were good, he said that patients just like the man helped his practice grow and thrive. After seeing the man's wife in tears, Dr. Regwan didn't have the heart to charge him for the exam or subsequent visits. Going a step further, he implemented a weekly program to help others in need.

The weekly program was held on Thursdays in June and July. Dr. Regwan began offering eye exams at drastically reduced fees to people in the community who were down on their luck. Many were his patients who had lost their job.

He recalled treating between five and 15 people every week. Patients who could afford to pay were charged $39 for an eye exam. If the patient needed new lenses, they received either two free boxes of contact lenses or could choose from more than 300 frames with upgraded single-vision lenses that were scratch resistant, anti-glare, and offered ultraviolet protection. Other patients who were in worse financial shape paid as little as $1 for the same exam and also received free glasses or contact lenses.

Dr. Regwan's optometry practice picked up the tab for the lenses and frames. He donated between five and 12 pairs of glasses every week. He said that each pair cost him between $10 and $40. Likewise, the lenses cost between $20 and $35.

While it's hard to calculate, Dr. Regwan suspects he donated roughly $12,000 during those 2 months-approximately $8,000 in discounted exams and the remainder for free glasses and lenses.

Growing pains

Considering the struggling economy and rising unemployment rate, Dr. Regwan wanted to expand his free Thursday program by encouraging more people to participate. He contacted the local media as well as TV celebrities-none of whom were interested-then told his story on social networking sites such as Facebook. Unfortunately, the number of participants remained the same.

He believes the reason more people didn't take advantage of the program is they lacked transportation. So he stopped the program in August. Now he hopes to raise enough funds to purchase several mobile eye centers, completely furnished with the latest technology, a lab, dispensary, and eye exam rooms.

His first priority is children. With help from other optometrists, technicians, and ophthalmologists who donate their time, he said the mobile units will first visit elementary schools in impoverished areas. Then, with a little bit of luck and a lot of charitable contributions, the units can travel throughout California and perhaps, the United States.

More work ahead

Meanwhile, he said, a lot more can be done. He hopes more optometrists will donate a block of time-3 or 4 hours, 1 or 2 days a week-in their own practice to help people who are unemployed.

While his patients express their appreciation to him in different ways-ranging from sending him cards and fruit baskets to pictures drawn by their children-he said the ultimate reward is in the giving.

"When you believe in what you do, love what you do, and your patients support you, it's very easy to give back and support them," Dr. Regwan said. "This is just scratching the surface. My goal is to reach as many people as we can."