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Dr. Leila Chow: Preserving and Restoring Sight


In the summer between 6th and 7th grade, my parents enrolled me in a summer school class where I was bored to tears. My mother suggested that I help the teacher, who was my 6th grade teacher, with some of the students in the class instead of being bored. That was the start of my life long involvement with volunteerism and community service.

Throughout high school and college, I volunteered at hospitals, local youth organizations, March of Dimes, and the Red Cross. After graduating from optometry school, I went to Guatemala with Help the World See and participated in my first clinic mission. This experience could not be compared to volunteering at community health clinics. The clinic site was rural and held in a building that was the local presidential campaign headquarters. The patients were extremely poor but extremely grateful that we were there to help them see better. We examined patients and gave them glasses to improve their vision. The patients that we were not able to help were referred to the local ophthalmologists.

I will never forget a young mother that I had examined in the clinic. She was able to see her baby’s face clearly only if the baby was within 4 inches of her face and she made tortillas by hand for a living. Upon examination, it was discovered that she was extremely nearsighted. The team did not have a single pair of glasses that would give her the best vision possible, so she was given two pairs of glasses: one pair for intermediate and near vision and a second pair to be worn over the first pair to see things farther away. With both pairs of glasses on she looked around in amazement with tears streaming down her face. This was the first time in her life that she was able to see her surroundings beyond a foot from her face.

In 1999, I joined the Walnut Creek Host Lions Club and became the Director of Clinics and later Executive Director and Treasurer for Lions In Sight of California/Nevada, Inc., a nonprofit Lions Club organization that collects used eyeglasses and conducts clinic missions in developing nations around the world.

In 2006, my life changed with the birth of my daughter. After participating in or leading three dozen clinic missions to Asia, Europe, Central and South America, and Mexico, I decided to refocus my volunteer efforts more locally. In 2010 I joined Lions Eye Foundation of California/Nevada, Inc. as the treasurer. Currently I serve on the LEF Board of Trustees as President.

Lions Eye Foundation (LEF) is a nonprofit organization based out of San Francisco that has served low income and uninsured individuals in Northern California and Nevada since 1960. Its mission is “to preserve and restore the gift of sight by providing free ophthalmic examinations, operations, and medication to the less fortunate members of our community.”

Last year, a patient was working in construction to remove tile with a hammer when he felt something fly into his eye and experienced immediate pain and severe vision loss. His eye was swollen and red with a 2mm linear tear in the middle of his cornea and in the lens. An ultrasound revealed the presence of iron foreign body lodged in the retina and back wall of his eye. With the assistance of Lions Eye Foundation, the patient received emergency surgery to save his injured eye. A few months after his surgery, he is doing extremely well and his best-corrected vision with glasses is approximately 20/70, which is driving vision.

For calendar year 2019, LEF’s Lions Eye Clinic, in partnership with Sutter/CPMC Department of Ophthalmology in San Francisco, provided more than $7.0 million of ophthalmological care, with no cost to the patients, which included 264 surgeries, 738 injections, 230 laser procedures and 3,075 diagnostic procedures. In total, there were over 4400 patient visits at Lions Eye Clinic for the year.

The patients seen at the Lions Eye Clinic are low income and uninsured individuals who have lived in Northern California or Nevada for at least 12 months. These patients are sponsored by their local Lions Clubs and are typically referred for cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, keratoconus/corneal transplants, retinal detachment, strabismus and other conditions that are sight threatening by their local optometrists, ophthalmologists, health clinics, nurses and schools. Many of the patients are in the prime of their lives and with the care and services provided by LEF and Sutter/CPMC, their quality of life is dramatically improved. I feel fortunate to be part of an organization that is committed to preserving and restoring the gift of sight to so many.

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