Written by Jake Simmons
Photos by Jake Simmons
September 29, 2019, was a special day for the Las Vegas Tzu Chi Service Center for several reasons. Not only was it a day for dental outreach at the Salvation Army to benefit the homeless community in Las Vegas, but it was also the first-ever vision outreach to be conducted in Las Vegas by Tzu Chi.
Tzu Chi’s Las Vegas Service Center has been conducting dental outreach events for four years, during which doctors, dentists, and their assistants gather to help people who are homeless by providing dental care. For care that is so essential, it is simply not affordable for these individuals, and thus, they live in constant pain when such issues arise. At least twice a year, free dental services from cleanings, fillings, extractions, are provided on a first-come, first-served basis.
Never before had the Service Center attempted a vision outreach, however. It did not previously have the necessary equipment nor the trained personnel to be able to provide such a service. A decision was reached by Tzu Chi in early 2019 to raise funds through internal donations. And then, through the selfless love of those who also wished to help others, this goal was realized. Sufficient funds were donated to enable an initial purchase of the expensive equipment. Steven Voon, COO and Executive Vice President of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation in Fresno, California, was already experienced in this field of aid, and knew exactly what to do. He has a Vision Outreach Program of his own in Fresno, and was instrumental in the purchase of equipment, transport, set-up, and initial training as well.
The doors to the Salvation Army opened at 8:30 AM, but patients were lined up far before then, and the last patients arrived at around 1:45 PM. The dentists and their assistants remain as long as there is one patient left to be treated.
Each patient is first seen by an administrative team member who initiates a file containing personal information and medical history. They are then seen by another team that documents height, weight, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and other pertinent data. The waiting area begins to fill at this point. Patients are grouped by the procedures to be performed – fillings, cleanings, and extractions.
As they waited, patients were offered a free haircut. During this particular outreach, the team of five barbers and hairstylists in attendance were especially popular. Fifty haircuts were given that day.
Because of the introduction of the vision program, patients would be offered the choice of either receiving dental care or vision care, but not both. During normal dental outreach events, there are so many patients just waiting for dental care, and it was anticipated that one outreach might interfere with the other. Therefore, it was decided to separate the two so that all people could access the care they required.
A triage point was established for a dentist to see and speak with each dental patient individually, to become familiar with the patient’s dental history and to ascertain their current dental needs. X-rays were taken as needed.
From triage, each patient was directed to a Tzu Chi volunteer and personally taken to the dentist best qualified for their individual needs. Vision patients did not go through triage. A station with equipment needed to perform diagnostic tests to evaluate the patient’s vision and check for eye diseases had additionally been established.
Further tests with even more sensitive equipment establish each patient’s visual acuity. These tests require the attention of a qualified optometrist. This is where each eye is checked and the doctor writes the prescription for new lenses.
Prescriptions are written for each patient, and they’re offered the choice of several different styles of frames for their new lenses. Although the Service Center does not have the machinery necessary to grind and polish the individual lenses at present, the prescription is sent to Fresno, where the lenses are ground and returned to the patient the following day.
Simultaneously, dental patients are being seen and treated in a large open area packed with dentists. Assistants and Tzu Chi volunteers dispense the dental instruments needed for each procedure, as well as clean those instruments on the completion of each procedure.
Tzu Chi and the dental teams have been doing this for several years, and each time an outreach is held, procedures are refined to ensure that each succeeding outreach is better than the last. There is a sense of urgency throughout the room since there are many patients to be seen and only a limited time to attend to everyone, however, it is also filled with love and care. In just a few short hours, eighty-five dental patients must be seen by only a few doctors. No one is turned away.
It was altogether a successful outreach. Doctors came away tired but elated that they were able to once again give back to the community. Tzu Chi was gratified to be able to reach out through our dentists and optometrists with compassion and care to those who could use a hand. The men and women who were treated expressed their gratitude in many ways – some with their words, some with handshakes, some with interviews given freely to our team. There is no doubt that, given time and help from the Las Vegas community, there will be many more such events.