True Blue Spotlight

Empowering the Community

Exiting the double doors of University Hall on Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong Campus in Savannah, a man carefully wriggled new eyeglasses on as he looked down and away from sunlight that pushed through dark rain clouds above.

“Can you see better?” a camouflaged military officer asked him before crossing into the building.

“Oh, yeah,” replied the man. He had just received an eye exam and prescription glasses free of charge, compliments of Operation Empower Health – Greater Savannah. His head lifted high, he trailed off campus, confidence in his step.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2018 Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) Program, hosted on the University’s Armstrong Campus and three other sites across Chatham County from May 10 through May 18, he and more than 1,500 other local residents have the gift of clearer vision today.

In partnership with St. Joseph’s/Candler (SJ/C), the City of Savannah, Garden City and Savannah State University, the event provided no-cost medical, dental, vision and veterinary services to area citizens and their pets. Led by Savannah’s 165th Airlift Wing, other military partners included the Army Reserve’s 3rd Medical Command from Atlanta, Multifunctional Medical Battalion in Savannah, the Navy’s eyeglasses fabrication unit from Virginia and the Marine Corps Forces Reserves 4th Dental Battalion from New Orleans.

The private-public initiative provided 26,000-plus procedures to more than 9,000 individuals and almost 3,000 animals in an array of services that exceeded $4.5 million in cost. The sponsors of the program provided space for the medical services and a place for the troops to bed down and eat.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Georgia Southern Health Informatics Program Coordinator Paula Tillman, DNP. “We found some patients who could not wait for follow-up. They needed immediate attention and we may not have had an appointment nearby or a clinic available for them, but we were able to coordinate with Sister Pat from St. Joseph’s/Candler, making sure that we could place them immediately.”

One gentleman was whisked to the emergency department for immediate assessment and care while another woman with dangerously high blood pressure — a chronic issue she knew about but didn’t have the means to deal with — was delivered to St. Mary’s Health Center, a unit of SJ/C, within an hour.

A diabetic woman who before didn’t have access to insulin broke down, sobbing, after receiving a consultation, a clinic appointment and arrangements for ongoing care.

“She was so excited,” relayed Tillman. “The fact that she could not only get care here, but also when the event was over. We were able to connect her with a primary medical care home for the long-term.”

Georgia Southern Health Sciences and Kinesiology Professor Janet Buelow, Ph.D., co-wrote the initial proposal requesting the IRT program to come to the Armstrong Campus in 2016 with Sister Mary-Anne of S/JC. They described the poverty rates in various neighborhoods of Savannah, as well as the area’s greatest healthcare needs, which, she said, fall under the scope of dental services.

“Each week in the emergency departments we see patients in great pain with dental abscesses, yet they can’t afford a dentist, ” noted Buelow.

For a holistic portrait of area needs, patients were asked to fill out a form about access, or lack thereof, to transportation, food and other corresponding areas. They were assisted by 85 Georgia Southern Waters College of Health Professions undergraduate and graduate students who earned credit hours for their participation.

— Melanie Simón

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