|Next year, ophthalmology residents Tonya Albarelli, M.D. and David Dodds, M.D. will take the reins of the eyeglass matching program, ReSpectacle, at SLU. They are pictured next to neuro-ophthalmology fellow Aaron Grant, M.D. and resident Anusha Vasamsetti, M.D. who, respectively, have been involved in creating and running the innovative program that helps those who cannot afford glasses.|
ST. LOUIS – Eye glasses are expensive. When you replace your eye wear, you can’t simply offer the old glasses to a friend who needs them; the prescription won’t match. Discarding glasses feels like a waste when we realize that approximately 269 million people in the world have low vision and that 145 million could have their sight corrected with glasses.
As a medical student, Jeffrey Lynch traveled to Peru in 2006 on a mission trip to help perform eye surgeries. He quickly realized that most of the people who came to the clinic to see the visiting doctors needed glasses, not surgery.
"It was an interesting experience to visit an impoverished community where only the wealthy had access to eyeglasses, something I believe many take for granted here in the U.S.A.,” Lynch said. “At the same time, it was frustrating to know that there is a large surplus of high quality used glasses in affluent countries that collect dust in drawers.
“The challenge was to find a way to connect this valuable resource to those who could benefit most."
Several years later, as an ophthalmology resident at Saint Louis University, Lynch enlisted the help of fellow residents and medical students at SLU to create a program to match unused glasses with the prescriptions of those who couldn’t afford them.
Aaron Grant, M.D., another resident and now a fellow in the SLU ophthalmology program, joined Lynch to write an algorithm to find and rank the best matches between a person’s prescription and the existing stock of donated glasses. SLU medical student Ford Parsons designed and built the website.
Without the typical delay of feasibility studies or applications for start-up grants, ReSpectacle was born.
Part of ReSpectacle’s success lies in its simplicity. Visit the website and you’ll see two buttons: Donate and Browse.
The program accepts donated glasses by mail and drop off. When the glasses arrive, volunteers read and catalog their prescription with a lensometer, an instrument used to determine the prescription strength of lenses. They clean them, photograph them, upload pictures, print out a matching ticket and store them until there is a match. Those who need glasses enter their prescription online, and the algorithm finds the closest matches.
Users can browse the style selections that are available. Once they choose a pair, users enter shipping information and submit their orders. They receive the glasses at no charge.
Individuals are welcome to use the site, as are health care providers who may want to connect their underserved patients with the resource. Thanks to expanding internet accessibility and ease of shipping around the globe, the world has become a much smaller place. Anyone with an internet connection can be a donor or recipient.
“It’s efficient, it’s environmentally sound in that it’s reusing existing resources, it’s practical,” says current ophthalmology resident and ReSpectacle site director at Saint Louis University, Anusha Vasamsetti, M.D. “And it makes such a difference for people.”
Vasamsetti says that the quality of life that good vision brings can’t be over emphasized. Low vision reduces people’s ability to function in the world, affecting their chance to work and contribute to their families. Often, a person’s vision is so poor that they require a caregiver to support them during daily activities.
One of the program’s aims is to allow people with low vision that can be corrected with glasses to get back to work. Lynch calls this the 2/2/2 rule: Two dollars to mail a pair of glasses plus two minutes to clean and process them gives back two lives, that of the recipient and their caregiver.
Beyond productivity, vision affects our ability to engage with our world. Vasamsetti describes one of her most memorable interactions with a patient: a mother with very bad eyesight received her first pair of glasses and was suddenly able to see clearly. As the woman looked at her child, she teared up as she realized for the first time, “My daughter looks just like me.”
Two years after its creation, ReSpectacle has a stock of 3000 glasses and is regularly filling requests and shipping glasses to those who need them in the U.S. and internationally. With more than 100 active volunteers and a recent grant from the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, the program has been thriving. As SLU’s residents and fellows travel to new cities to continue their training or begin their medical practices, they’ve taken ReSpectacle with them to their new locations.
Headed to Chicago in July for a pediatric ophthalmology fellowship, Vasamsetti says she’ll hand over the reins of the SLU operation to two more SLU residents and plans to introduce the program to the Windy City.
“People are always so happy to receive the glasses, especially the international recipients,” Vasamsetti said. “It’s a great, easy way you can make a real difference in someone’s life.”
Donate or Browse
To donate your old glasses, you can mail them to:
Associated Eye Care, LTD,
care of Jeffrey Lynch, M.D.
1719 Tower Drive
Stillwater, MN 55082
Or, if you’re in St. Louis, St. Paul, Iowa City, Little Rock, or Omaha, you can drop them off in person. (See addresses here.)
To browse, all you need to know is your prescription. After typing in the details, an algorithm checks the database and shows you the matches in system. Color-coded, a 90 percent or greater match is marked as “green,” and means that the glasses are likely to be comfortable and useful. Less close matches, marked in yellow and red, also appear. Users can browse through the choices to see colors, styles and frames, as well as see the glasses’ condition.
If you have insurance or can afford glasses, it is always best to purchase your own personalized glasses. The ReSpectacle program is designed to assist those who cannot otherwise afford glasses.