A Mesa eye clinic is flying specialists out to remote areas across the state to perform operations locals would have to drive into larger cities for otherwise.
The business, Southwestern Eye Center, has sent eye doctors to cities and towns across Arizona and New Mexico such as Flagstaff, Yuma and Las Cruces to provide eye care to patients. Planes leave every weekday from Chandler, with up to four leaving at one time.
Southwestern Eye Center was founded in the early 1980s by Dr. Lothaire Bluth, an Arizona native whose predecessor was an eye surgeon with a hobby of flying airplanes. Since the practice was located right on Falcon Field, Bluth decided it would be a good idea to start taking his practice on the road (or in the air, as it were) and bring eye care services to outlying communities in the state.
Shane Armstrong, COO of Southwestern Eye Center, said it’s not uncommon for the planes to swing through Tucson and pick up more doctors before continuing on to New Mexico for the day — stopping in Tucson again in the evening before coming back to the Valley.
“Overall, we see over 200,000 patient encounters a year and most of our locations are rural locations,” said Armstrong. “It’s a costly endeavor … we spend a considerable amount in travel costs. Of course, if we weren’t able to support it financially, we couldn’t do it, but it’s also [about] being able to provide quality eye care to people who wouldn’t be able to get it otherwise.”
Armstrong said clinics in remote areas have anchor doctors, but sub-specialists must still be flown in. One of those is Dr. Michael Campion, an ophthalmologist who specializes in a variety of corrective surgical procedures. He does hundreds of operations per year across Arizona and has worked pro bono in other countries as well.
“Sometimes it’s very hard for the patients to get to Phoenix or Tucson … so it’s so much more convenient for them,” Campion said. “We have multiple offices in multiple locations in the state and some of them are far away and it takes a long time to drive and so flying is really the only option. People can get the kind of care that you’d normally get in the big city — in the more rural areas.”
He said that a major challenge is the time between visits to a location, meaning patients have to see a local doctor.
“Sometimes, because of our absence in these communities, we have to rely on other doctors for follow-up or if there’s a complication. It may be a week or two before I can get back to see them,” Campion said.
Jack Bissell, from Lake Havasu City, said after wearing glasses since the first grade and waiting the last five years for surgery, the Department of Veterans Affairs finally referred him to Southwestern Eye Center and he was able to get the surgeries done —one eye in June and the other scheduled for July.
“My eyes were getting worse and worse and so they referred me to this eye clinic … and I have several other friends who have gone there. And now I’m in the process of getting it done,” he said. “I’m just so happy because I think that I won’t have to order glasses anymore.”
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