Faye Oelrich spent five years at the Jules Stein Eye Institute before she joined the Mobile Eye Clinic in 1978, where she has been ever since.
The UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic, located in a 40-foot-long coach that holds two ophthalmology exam rooms, rolls out four days a week to schools, health clinics and homeless shelters around the city - almost always with Faye Oelrich on board.
What is an orthoptist?
Under the supervision of an ophthalmologist, an orthoptist evaluates strabismus, which is a disorder of eye movement or eye alignment and is usually detected in childhood. Orthoptists deal with very specific eye problems, such as lazy eye (amblyopia), "crossed" eyes or "wall" eyes, and lack of binocular vision (use of the eyes together). Without binocular vision, a person can't appreciate "3-D" vision.
What do you like about working with the Mobile Eye Clinic?
This has been such a beautiful job for me and has given me the opportunity to give back to the community, do a variety of different things, and work with donors, ophthalmologists, residents, medical students and volunteers. The environment is always stimulating. Driving around in the Mobile Clinic has taken me to so many places I would have never seen and has shown me the diversity of Los Angeles. The scientific discoveries and technological advances that I've witnessed in the past 34 years have also been amazing.
Who does the Mobile Eye Clinic serve?
We provide free eye examinations annually to 3,500 children and 800 adults in our community who would not otherwise receive care. We also provide free screenings to 1,000 adults at health fairs. Our mission is to discover eye diseases or eye problems and to try to get people connected with their own ophthalmologists so they can get the care they need. We target first graders because it's very important to catch eye problems early. For instance, if they have amblyopia, they need patching to prevent permanent vision loss. We prescribe eyeglasses for over 20 percent of the patients we see and give free eyeglasses to children in need.
How did you become interested in eye health?
I started wearing glasses for nearsightedness in first grade and I remember how amazed I was at being able to see. I also remember being embarrassed, which helps me relate to the children who get glasses from us. When I was in eighth grade, I did a science project on the physiology of the eye. But it was my aunt who first suggested I might like this career, since I enjoy working with children and have always been interested in eye health.
What's the most challenging part of the job?
It's always difficult to find places to refer adults because so many don't have insurance or are unable to pay for services. We refer to the county hospitals and clinics and also have a treasured list of ophthalmologists who will accept some referrals. The American Academy of Ophthalmology provides some free care through Eye Care America. It's frustrating not knowing how many people get the follow-up care they need. It doesn't do much good to find out they have an eye problem if they don't get follow-up care.
Has the Mobile Eye Clinic always operated out of the same bus?
No. Our first bus was actually a tram from Universal Studios. We replaced that in 1979 with a used mobile clinic from Baylor University that we refurbished, which eventually wore out. But this one is my baby. It's a 1995 Blue Bird bus that took about a year to customize. I was very "hands on," working with the coach company to design the interior. Getting everything to fit was challenging, but I consider this to be one of my biggest accomplishments.
What are your hobbies or interests?
I'm an empty nester and just started taking classes in ceramics. I love the outdoors, especially camping, backpacking and hiking. I also like to garden. We just took out our lawn and planted a drought-tolerant garden that reduced our water bill by a third!