Cherokees have used NSU optometry clinic for 39 years
Seth Rich, a Cherokee Nation citizen and fourth-year Northeastern State University optometry student, right, shows Tara Comingdeer Fields, a CN citizen and first-year student, how to operate a slit lamp on Nate Lighthizer, NSU Oklahoma College of Optometry director of Continuing Medical Education and doctor of optometry. The equipment can examine the eye’s interior using a beam of light. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – Northeastern State University’s Oklahoma College of Optometry goes back 39 years in its relationship with the Cherokee Nation and in providing Cherokees eye care.
NSUOCO works with nine CN clinics, also known as Rural Eye Programs, in Tahlequah, Sallisaw, Stilwell, Jay, Salina, Vinita, Nowata, Muskogee and Ochelata and services 40,000 to 60,000 patients annually.
Its first graduating class was in 1983 and has since averaged 28 graduates annually from its four-year doctorate program.
The NSU campus clinic contains 20 exam rooms and specialty clinics for dry eye, contact lenses, low vision, vision therapy and infant vision clinic. If a REP is unable to provide a type of eye care, patients are sent to the NSU clinic for further evaluation and treatment.
Nate Lighthizer, NSUOCO Continuing Medical Education director and doctor of optometry, said the college has seen patients from 2 months old to 102 years old.
“We all have different vision needs. That’s one of the beauties of having a college is we have 35 faculty members that are either here, in (W.W.) Hastings (Hospital) or in the REPs, and a lot them have different interests. We have doctors that specialize in infant vision and vision therapy. They’re the expert in the 6-month-old and the 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-year-old. Other doctors, they’re the expert in the 80-year-olds,” Lighthizer said.
He said students begin in “didactically heavy” classes, building foundations and learning about systemic diseases, eye diseases, procedures when giving primary care, looking at the eye with microscopes and other program aspects.
He said students begin seeing patients at the end of the second year and into the third year.
CN citizen and fourth-year student Seth Rich said he applied for the NSU program because of the experience it would give him treating patients by the time he graduates.
“I’m from this area, so I wanted to serve basically in the population that I grew up in. Here at NSU we see more patients compared to any other optometry school by the time we graduate. We have more patient interactions that any other optometry school is going to have and more clinical experience because we start seeing patients a year early than most other schools,” he said.
Rich said he also has experience using the REPs and seeing the eye care needs among Cherokees.
“We deal with a lot of diabetic patients here at Cherokee Nation, and that has a really large effect on the eyes. Being able to be in this area and serve a population that has a huge need for us is a big deal because I personally have a lot of family ties to this area want to be in a community where I feel like I’m going to be contributing and giving back and helping the overall health of the population with health and exams,” he said.
Rich said the program prepares students to “go out into the real world” and treat patients of any need. “I feel very confident going out into the population and serving basically anybody that walks in the door.”
CN citizen Tara Comingdeer Fields, who is in her first year at NSUOCO, said she chose the program because of her area ties. “It’s not specifically just Cherokee Indians that I want to serve, but overall Native Americans. My background is I grew up in a traditional family, so the medicines and traditions that we did just kind of stuck with me, and now I want to help people.”
Comingdeer Fields and Rich are recipients of Indian Health Services scholarships for optometry and will work under an IHS contract upon graduation.
Lighthizer said CN citizens make up between 10 to 15 percent of the NSUOCO’s students and that it’s usually rewarding for a Cherokee to grow up using CN eye care services and then go through the program and become a provider. “It’s just a very mutually beneficial relationship between Cherokee Nation to be able to have all of these patients seen and then obviously for the education for students to be able to see patients and hone their skills.”