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Seeing Clearly: Salisbury VA low vision therapist conducts training, outreach in Egypt

Terri L. Everett, a low vision therapist with the Kernersville Health Care Center, Salisbury VA Health Care System, poses for a photo during a sightseeing tour in Egypt. Photo courtesy of Terri Everett.
Terri L. Everett, a low vision therapist with the Kernersville Health Care Center, Salisbury VA Health Care System, poses for a photo during a sightseeing tour in Egypt. Photo courtesy of Terri Everett.

At the VA, outreach is one of our core operational tenets.

VA providers and staff work together with our community partners to provide care for Veterans throughout our catchment areas – and beyond.

Outreach is often a vital component for a variety of health services – from primary care to mental health to health care for homeless Veterans and more.

But at the Salisbury VA Health Care System, one provider recently took her outreach mission a step further than possibly anyone else in the Veterans Health Administration.

This provider turned her service’s outreach modality into an international campaign.

That’s what Terri L. Everett, a blind rehabilitation outpatient specialist (BROS) with the Kernersville Health Care Center, did last summer when she departed the United States for two-months on unpaid leave to support a medical education program in Cairo, Egypt, training five local interns in low vision rehabilitation.

“There are low vision therapists internationally. But [Egypt] has never had that opportunity. I thought it would be a great outreach effort for the VA to support. It’s not a VA program but [Salisbury] felt it was important enough to have low vision therapists there to further our outreach,” said Terri.

As a BROS and certified low vision therapist, Terri works to assist blind or visually impaired Veterans with care coordination, assessments, and therapeutic instruction to help them reclaim the confidence and skills needed to lead an independent, fulfilling life after vision loss.

And in Kernersville, Terri’s Veterans are directly enabled by her enthusiasm and willingness to take the initiative on groundbreaking low vision care and outreach efforts.

It has resulted in many of the Veterans Terri works with elevating their lives to whole new levels – after combatting depression and other mental health concerns unfortunately all too common for Veterans.

However, perhaps uncommonly, blind and visually impaired Veterans around the VA often compete in adaptive sports, like the VA’s yearly National Veterans Golden Age Games competition, which Terri frequently attends with her fiancé Chuck, a U.S. Army Veteran who also lives with a visual impairment.

It’s easy to see how the Veterans Terri serves inspired her to take the next step for her occupation's outreach  – which brought her on a plane to Egypt.

With her supervisor’s approval and the VA's endorsement, Terri took unpaid leave and departed for Northern Africa, ready to help jumpstart a new educational program aimed at training the next generation of low vision providers.

“Her not being in the clinic is a big factor; Terri is very valuable as an employee. We adapted our staffing and gave her time to prepare," said Dr. Philip M. Roels, Terri’s supervisor and advanced low vision section chief with the Salisbury VA Health Care System. "We thought the effort was worth it in the end."

It all started when Terri saw an international low vision outreach opportunity published by her field’s credentialing body, the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals (ACVREP).

The opportunity turned out to be a months-long training stint in Egypt – sponsored by ESLSCA University, Western Michigan University, and the Baseera Foundation – targeting low vision program development and promoting optical care and access for patients throughout the country.

Needless to say, Terri didn’t think twice and jumped at the opportunity.

After applying, interviewing, and being competitively selected, Terri consulted with Dr. Roels to ensure there would be no clinical impact to Veterans being seen for low vision care in Kernersville. She also received strong support from the Salisbury VA leadership team.

Shortly after, she was off to Cairo.

Terri then spent eight weeks teaching a cohort of students about low vision devices; how to assess patients with low or no vision; how to serve them best with different quality of life changes; and more.

“On a day-to-day basis, I would have the interns with me and we would be seeing patients. I would work closely with them on how to assess people, how to determine what their vision is, lots of eye tests. Then we would introduce magnifiers and other devices needed,” said Terri.

The interns completed a total of 350 hours of training supervised directly by Terri – all of which will be nationally and internationally accredited by participating universities around the world.

Many of the participating students will eventually go on to provide low vision care internationally in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere around North Africa and the Middle East.

Terri also spent a significant amount of time conducting program development for the low vision care team.

She hosted vision therapy sessions for local adults and children in the city to help implement standard procedure for patient assessment while also determining need for locals in a region where eye exams are often overlooked completely.

“These would be [patients] who may not have any vision but can still see light. By doing vision therapy, it stimulates the brain. It’s not going to restore somebody’s vision, but any way we can stimulate the body, it helps the patient’s brain work better.”

In only a few short weeks, Terri became an integral part of this mission and care community.

She is hopeful that her contribution will soon become a blueprint for future iterations of this training program overseas to continue development of low vision providers the world over.

“Low vision is an international community. The VA has many international providers. That was the goal, not only begin services in Egypt for the visually impaired, but also for the students to become internally certified so they could have opportunity. They’re really looking for people who can serve. This has become a reality for them. This isn’t about me; it’s about what we did. It was life changing,” said Terri.

And just like the unrelenting commitment she demonstrated in Egypt, Terri came back swinging upon returning to her clinic in Kernersville, eager to continue providing for her Veterans throughout Salisbury VA, especially as they continue to train for next year’s Golden Age Games.

Unsurprisingly, Terri has already been asked to return to Cairo next summer to further the low vision program, and while she isn’t quite ready to make a decision on the future, Terri let a few tears drop as she smiled, reflecting on her short time in Northern Africa.

Not because of the travel, the sightseeing, or the incredible cultural experiences she had.

But because of the impact the Egyptian men, women, and children – patients who were simply looking for a provider's trusted care – left on Terri.

Or, more accurately, the impact Terri left on her patients.

And that’s the same kind of effect she has on every single Veteran she cares for at the VA. Terri is one of many VA providers who are here to help and live to serve, whether at home in North Carolina or abroad in Africa.

“We’re one huge population in this world, and if we can help one person or 10 people, that, to me, is why we’re here on this Earth. Because of the VA, I had the opportunity to go somewhere and expand their [care] program. I think, more than anything, that’s what’s important.”

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