Great Health Divide | Kentucky College of Optometry works to treat and combat blindness
PIKEVILLE, Ky. (WSAZ) - Our vision is one of our most prized senses, but rural Appalachia struggles with severe vision loss.
The problem is so serious that, in 2015, the CDC labeled eastern Kentucky as the blindest region in the U.S.
“Our mission is to serve the underserved and train our students,” said Dr. Cliff Caudill, assistant dean for clinic affairs at Kentucky College of Optometry.
Limited access to care, not enough providers and health-related factors have landed the area with such a dangerous designation.
To meet the need, the University of Pikeville created the Kentucky College of Optometry which opened to students in early 2017. It’s the first and only college of optometry in the state. They operate out of a 103,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility, including training centers and labs. But working in tandem with the on-campus learning, students are also partnered with rural clinics and hospitals to treat residents in communities outside of Pikeville and in smaller, more-remote areas.
“So that we’re taking the students to the place where the people are that have the conditions that need to be treated,” said Dr. Michael Bacigalupi, dean of KYCO.
The school celebrated its first graduating class in 2020 and is preparing to congratulate another 51 students in May.
“I think when you’ll meet these students you’ll realize that they are going to make the world a better place,” Bacigalupi said. “So that’s the best part.”
The difficulty is battling a problem you can’t always see. Many conditions go undiagnosed, while other diseases are degenerative and can cause irreversible harm. Other hurdles like financial barriers mean many people go without yearly exams.
“Glaucoma is also known as the sneak thief of sight because it typically has no symptoms and it robs people, slowly robs people of their side-vision and can eventually blind them,” Dr. Caudill said.
Fourth year student Kelley Bentley is also from rural Kentucky. Her passion stems from a personal connection with her own eye condition.
“I have strabismus, where my eyes turn in,” Bentley said. “So that’s what actually got me interested. I was always in the optometry office growing up as a little kid.”
Dr. Bacigalupi says their work is critical in catching, preventing and treating serious illnesses.
“If you can help protect someone’s vision, help save someone’s vision or help restore someone’s vision, the impact you’ve had on their life is just amazing,” he said.
The newly ironed lab coats will head out into the community, trying to get residents to view eyecare as a priority, giving them a chance and opportunity to experience vision health through new corrective lenses.
“I think the fear is a real thing here,” said Dr. Caudill. “In a lot of rural communities. a lot of time the attitude is, well, ‘if I don’t go to the doctor and I don’t hear that something’s wrong with me, then everything is OK.’”
Educators say it’s a rewarding career and each day they’re given a chance to make a difference in someone’s sight and ability to view things clearly.
“That first time they’re looking through those glasses and seeing their mom or seeing the world outside or whatever through a really new set of eyes is something that keeps you coming back to work every single day,” Caudill said.
They’re taking medicine to the mountains and ensuring the fighting spirit of Appalachia is around a long time for the whole world to see.
“They’ve never given up, I think there’s nothing here but a bright future,” Caudill said.
Typically, the college receives more than 480 applications a year for 64 seats. A high percentage of students are from Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
“Our clinics are open and available to the public,” said Dr. Bacigalupi. “We would love to have people come and have eyecare from us.”
This year, they also started three residency programs, or postgraduate programs for optometrists to gain more experience in ocular disease and primary care.
“We’re really happy about that,” Bacigalupi said. “We’re just going to continue to grow the school. We have some initiatives in research and help students gain more clinical exposure, so it’s just constant growth and constant evolution of the school. So we’re growing fast.”
The state of Kentucky offers four student contract seats, which allow them to come back and practice in the state.
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