Snapshot Interview: Kirsten D'Aversa Johnson, OD,

Get inspired and learn a little bit more about your fellow VOSH volunteers.

This month we are talking to Kirsten D’Aversa Johnson, OD, new Board Member of VOSH/International

A California native, Dr. Kirsten D’Aversa Johnson earned her Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology with cum laude honors at San Diego State University before moving to New York to attend the State University of New York College of Optometry. Pursuing her passion for providing eye care to children, she then completed a residency in Pediatric Optometry through the New England College of Optometry in Boston. She now practices pediatric optometry full-time at a private ophthalmology practice in Queens, New York. 

Kirsten has been active in VOSH/International since serving as President of the Student Chapter at her optometry school. In addition to attending mission trips to Mexico and Panama, she has served on the TTP and Chapter Relations Committees, and is passionate about furthering VOSH/International’s mission in innovative and sustainable ways. She also volunteers for the Association of Regulatory Boards of Optometry by reviewing continuing education lectures for potential COPE approved status. Outside of optometry she loves rock climbing, snowboarding, cooking, and live music- especially when her husband’s band is performing!

Dr. D’Aversa Johnson will serve as a Board Member of VOSH/International for a 2 year term from October 2021-October 2023. She can be reached at johnson@VOSH.org

“As a pediatric optometrist, I know firsthand that early detection of eye problems is extremely important. We see so many children in our VOSH clinics that struggle to learn and develop appropriately due to relatively simple vision problems such as a high refractive error. It would be fantastic if VOSH could spearhead efforts to expand pediatric eye care education and screening programs in areas lacking such programs.”

Can you tell us something about yourself? 

I am a pediatric optometrist, currently working in a private pediatric ophthalmology practice in diverse Queens, NY. In some ways, VOSH clinic eye care can be like pediatric eye care, especially when there is a language barrier. It is incredibly rewarding in both cases to identify problems or difficulties a person may have but are not able to communicate. Pediatric eye care also resembles VOSH clinics in that it’s a fun environment, and a very high level of energy is needed!

Work and VOSH take up a lot of my time, but when I’m not doing that I stay pretty active. This past year, in particular, has been busy: I got married, bought a home, and got a sweet Wheaten Terrier puppy named Chewie, so currently we are doing a lot of dog training and home improvement projects. Fun activities for me would be rock climbing, snowboarding, or  enjoying a nice restaurant or karaoke in the city with friends.

 

What motivated you to become, and ultimately, stay involved in VOSH?

I initially became involved in VOSH in optometry school through our student VOSH chapter. I actually remember seeing a poster for SUNY’s Student VOSH group when I visited the campus for my optometry school interview, and whispering to my mom “I’m going to be the President of that club.” Volunteering is just my passion. I eventually did serve as President of the SUNY Student VOSH chapter, and was fortunate to be able to attend two international volunteer trips as a student, to Mexico and Panama. Seeing so many lives affected positively on those trips, I truly fell in love with the work VOSH does.

Another impactful experience during my time as a student was attending the first annual SVOSH Chapter Presidents meeting, where optometry students from across the country shared their experiences and ideas for how to implement VOSH’s mission. I began to learn more about the broader scope VOSH/International has beyond the classic optometry school mission trips, such as donating equipment, supporting sustainable clinics, and promoting optometric education. Meeting and spending time with VOSH and SVOSH leaders who were like-minded in their motivation to help others, I felt like I had found my tribe. I am still constantly learning more about different work and projects VOSH has initiated and it is still my fellow volunteers that inspire me to continue.

What advice would you give to student ODs who are interested in being involved with VOSH?

As I continue to learn, there is not one singular way to participate in VOSH. There are infinite avenues to pursue to move the mission forward. If you want to help provide quality eye care to those who otherwise may not be able to access it, there is a place for you in VOSH! A great way to begin is by joining your school’s student VOSH group, or for those with a very strong interest becoming a VOSH/International Intern.

In general, I encourage students to follow any aspect of optometry they are passionate about, and it will not be “volunteer work,” rather a meaningful, fulfilling part of your life.

On my first VOSH trip I was only a second year student, and wondered if I would really be able to help anyone. How surprised I was to realize that simply providing reading glasses could be so life changing for the presbyopic pastor or seamstress or mechanic sitting across from me! Again and again, I am reminded of what I have taken for granted as basic healthcare, and that as optometrists, and optometry students, we have such a valuable set of skills.

As a new board member, what do you see as VOSH/INT’s accomplishments or goals in the next 5 years?

I think one of the most exciting projects of VOSH is the support of emerging optometric teaching institutions. It absolutely makes sense that one of the most lasting and large scale impacts we can have on a community is to help residents learn to provide quality eye care in their own neighborhoods. Of course, large projects like helping to open schools of optometry are incredibly time and resource consuming, but the impact is exponential and cannot be understated. I would love to see quality optometry schools in a few more underserved areas around the world in the next 5 years.

As a pediatric optometrist, I know firsthand that early detection of eye problems is extremely important. We see so many children in our VOSH clinics that struggle to learn and develop appropriately due to relatively simple vision problems such as a high refractive error. It would be fantastic if VOSH could spearhead efforts to expand pediatric eye care education and screening programs in areas lacking such programs.

Let’s talk about the committee on which you serve since joining the board, the Technology Transfer Program (TTP). Can you describe how the program operates?

TTP collects, restores and ships used optometric equipment, lenses and frames to needy clinics, teaching institutions, hospitals and NGOs where it can lead a new purpose and change lives. It is a vital service which enables developing clinics and optometric programs to obtain necessary equipment to treat their local communities and train local optometrists to provide quality eye care.”  You can learn more on the VOSH website: https://vosh.org/about-us/our-mission/our-solutions/

I love that TTP is essentially about recycling (or “upcycling”) equipment- it embodies VOSH’s push towards sustainability.  By repurposing equipment, we are taking something that might end up in a landfill and instead moving it to a non-profit clinic where it will be used to positively impact hundreds or thousands more people who need eye care. We also help facilitate the transfer of this equipment to teaching institutions where future optometrists or ophthalmologists can learn using this equipment which exponentially expands the positive impact we can have.

How does the TTP committee operate?

For years, the TTP committee has run through the tireless efforts of VOSH Board member Dr. David Stacy and his wife Pat. His sons are also involved in the pick up and delivery of donated equipment. In fact, David and Pat Stacy were recognized for their efforts in 2021 when they received the DR. HARRY I. ZELTZER LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD, which “honors an exemplary humanitarian who has provided a lifetime of service to humanity through improving visual welfare through leadership, dedication, invention, public health, developing sustainable eye care and furthering the understanding and correction of refractive error”. You can see the interview with Dr. Stacy here.

I am motivated to continue with TTP because I know the impact we can have. I am also so impressed by the tireless work of the other committee volunteers who have all been around longer than I have. It is a huge logistical undertaking to move large equipment across one state, not to mention across the country or across the world. A tremendous amount of planning goes into filling most requests we receive for equipment, but through our web of contacts (TTP members, other VOSH volunteers, acquaintances in other countries, and even family members) we have been able to create or build upon many clinics around the world.

What have been the biggest challenges of TTP? How does the committee address those challenges?

One of the biggest challenges we have is storage of previously donated equipment. While we wait to match items we receive to clinics or non-profit ventures that need that specific equipment, we have to store it. That is either in our warehouse in Arizona, or often in our own homes or offices. Organizing the equipment so it is accessible when needed requires a lot of help, and we sometimes have work days with TTP volunteers, other VOSH members and optometry students to categorize and maintain the equipment.

The second logistical hurdle is transportation of large, heavy equipment. Often shipping is not cost effective, so we have come up with creative solutions. Prior to COVID we would hire a truck to drive across the country picking up items along the way. We have now started to shift towards looking for regional clinics, schools, or to which VOSH groups can donate, which helps avoid the expensive cost of relocating equipment.

How does someone donate to TTP? How does someone request equipment for their optometry school, clinic or otherwise?

Donation is most often done through our link on the VOSH international website, where potential donors can describe what they have, and our team members can evaluate whether the equipment is usable, in demand, and accessible, and if so facilitate a donation. Our donors are mostly optometrists or office managers of optometry and ophthalmology practices who would like to see their equipment be put to use to help others. Sometimes they’re upgrading to newer technologies, selling their practices. We have even had several spouses of optometrists who have passed away who have donated in the memory of their loved one.

There is also a link on the VOSH international website for those who are looking to receive donations. We of course have to evaluate non-profit status or affiliation with any VOSH groups, and then determine if we have the equipment they need and can in fact find a way to get it to them.

What have you learned from being involved in VOSH?

I have learned just how much work is involved in everything VOSH does, from sending a team on a VOSH clinic trip to developing optometric education opportunities to finding new purposes for donated optometric equipment and more! Logistics are anything but simple (even before COVID-19) and it just adds another layer to how dedicated VOSH volunteers have to be.

It takes a “VOSH” village, and every person is important to helping the team reach their goals, especially in a unique organization like VOSH, where everyone is a passionate and dedicated volunteer.

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Updated COVID-19 and VOSH Humanitarian Clinics Advice

VOSH/International recently consulted its US and International Chapters about the feasibility and timing to restart our humanitarian clinics. While the vaccination process continues with different levels of success depending on availability and acceptance, it is evident that vaccine inequity and the availability and reliability of data in several countries are issues we need to consider.

Even if already vaccinated and boosted, our chapters are still concerned about the wellbeing of our volunteers and patients.  Some chapters, are organizing clinics locally where they are better able to comply with the existing safety requirements and respective state/country regulations.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its variants are being experienced quite differently depending on state, region, country, vaccine availability, vaccine acceptance, and the spread of SARS-COV-2 variants. Most VOSH chapters are not holding clinics or traveling internationally in 2021 or 2022.

If a VOSH Chapter choses to hold a clinic or travel internationally, we highly recommend that the chapter performs due diligence to comply fully with the requirements established by the visited country, ensures all VOSH volunteers are aware of and follow strict safety guidelines and all existing protocols and regulations of the country, and keeps the principle of “do no harm” embedded in all its decision making. As always, the wellbeing and safety for VOSH volunteers and our patients is of utmost importance and central to any decision-making process. We have published our updated clinic guidelines with best practices to be observed in this new context. VOSH chapters in specific countries are using protocols that need to be considered as well. You can download VOSH/International clinic guidelines here.

*VOSH/International is formed by autonomous US and international chapters that are fully and only responsible for their activities, fundraising and decision-making.  VOSH/International can only provide recommendations based on our best knowledge and information at the time.

Also please keep checking the following sites with official and most recent updates:

World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

US CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/when-to-delay-travel.html

US Government Travel Advise: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/COVID-19-Country-Specific-Information.html

Thank you for your hard work and dedication to improving vision and eye health throughout the world.

Michael Ciszek, OD, dipl ABO, FVI

President, VOSH/International

December 2021