Students Inspired to Save Sight

Published in Wilmer - Summer 2020

When Thomas Johnson III, M.D., Ph.D., first started medical school, he took Johns Hopkins’ mission of community service to heart. He began volunteering at free health clinics in the under-resourced and underserved neighborhoods of East Baltimore. Often, these clinics were the only medical care available to the residents there.

Back then, in 2010, the health screening were general in nature. Johnson would measure blood pressure and blood sugar, for example. Gradually, as his focus began to shift to ophthalmology, Johnson began to think about broadening those screenings.

“We just asked the people what health services they needed but lacked,” Johnson says. “And the number one thing was eye care.”

From there, Johnson took it upon himself to do something about the dearth of access to eye care. He recruited a group of medical students who were also interested in ophthalmology and began doing eye screenings, under faculty supervision, in the same neighborhoods. He called the group Student Sight Savers.

One of his first official acts was to enlist a faculty adviser to help shape the nascent program: Harry Quigley, M.D., the A. Edward Maumenee Professor of Ophthalmology, who already served as a teacher and mentor to Johnson. Quigley was an established expert in glaucoma care. He had also participated in an epidemiological study in the 1990s, known as the Baltimore Eye Survey, and the ensuing Hoffberger Eye Screening program, a community-based eye screening program.

Soon, Johnson won a grant, funded by the Friends of the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus Foundation, that provided screening equipment and another $10,000 for other equipment and supplies, Johnson recalls.

“It wasn’t a big grant, but enough to fund a few Saturdays in the community each year with 10 or 15 student screeners,” Quigley says. “Tom set it up, and from there, it just grew.”

A recruitment meeting at the school of medicine soon followed. Quigley thought maybe a handful of students would show, but 25 turned up. “That’s 20 percent of the class,” Quigley notes. “All willing and able to participate.”

Over time, the screenings grew in number and in scale. Student Sight Savers now provides eye screenings on Saturdays in communities around Baltimore every other month or so, under the supervision of Wilmer faculty members. People with potential medical issues, such as glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy, are referred to Wilmer, where they receive free care if they do not have health insurance. As of March 2020, 257 Student Sight Savers volunteers have participated in 44 events since the program’s start. A total of 1,130 people have been screened, and 416 — almost 37 percent — have been referred to Wilmer for care.

Johnson has continued to shepherd the project he first launched in 2011. Now an assistant professor of ophthalmology and the assistant chief of service (chief resident) at Wilmer, he succeeded Quigley as faculty adviser to Student Sight Savers about a year ago.

Student Sight Savers has been meaningful to Johnson as both a student and a faculty member. He’s particularly grateful to fellow faculty members who participate. “They do amazing things in their clinics and labs, and then they’re willing to take a half a day on a Saturday and just teach students and see patients,” Johnson notes. “That is really special.”