By ELLEN FRANCIS HARRIS
A good deed changed James J. Rooney's career. Co-workers at Mercy Neighborhood Ministry in St. Louis were preparing several homeless people for job interviews in 2010. One man needed eyeglasses. They asked Rooney, manager of Mercy Eye Care, part of Mercy Hospital St. Louis, what he could do. Rooney provided the eye exam and glasses free of charge.
Sedigheh Baghi undergoes an eye exam through the Mercy Eye Care Ministry at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.
Co-workers at Mercy Neighborhood Ministry, an off-site department of Mercy Hospital St. Louis that focuses on community health and access, then suggested Rooney think larger: develop and operate a new outreach program. Armed with a business plan and $15,000 from Mercy Health Foundation of St. Louis, the philanthropic organization supporting many Mercy outreach programs, Rooney dug in and started Mercy Eye Care Ministry.
Today, Rooney is the director of Mercy Eye Care Ministry in addition to running the three Mercy retail eye care shops with 22 employees. With an annual budget of $65,000, Mercy Eye Care Ministry helps up to 600 low-income, uninsured or underinsured people every year at three Missouri locations receive eye exams and prescription glasses. Some are non-English speaking immigrants without insurance like Sedigheh Baghi.
Baghi calls Mercy Eye Care Ministry "a blessing. I'm very happy to be under their care," she said through her daughter, Mariam, who translated. A Persian émigré, Baghi, 66, had been referred by the Mercy JFK Clinic, at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, seven years ago.
"Today's visit is a follow-up for dry eye, which makes her feel like there's something in her eye," said Mariam, who did not wish to give her surname. The eye clinic gives her mother eyedrops to combat dry eye condition, which makes eyes prone to infection or irritation or both.
"The eye care ministry is awesome," Mariam said. "My mother gets her glasses here, too. The customer service is excellent."
"We are an outreach for ophthalmology and eye care, and eyewear," Rooney said. "We try to help everybody we see," which follows the Mercy mission of the healing ministry of Jesus.
The eye care ministry works within Mercy Eye Care retail shops in three locations: at Mercy Hospital St. Louis in suburban St. Louis; at Hampton Village Plaza, in St. Louis city; and at Mercy Hospital Washington, in Washington, Mo., about 40 miles from St. Louis.
Translation services are provided at all three locations through an interpreter hotline service. "Many immigrant patients are already stressed and frightened," Rooney said. "You can see the patients' faces light up when they hear their native tongues."
Patients need a referral to use the ministry eye care service. Most come from three feeder organizations that process the financial screening for the eye care ministry: the Mercy Neighborhood Ministry with its strong outreach program; the JFK Clinic, where a local ophthalmologist volunteers one day a month; and the Mercy McAuley Clinic at Mercy Hospital Washington. The two clinics serve the uninsured and the underinsured.
Here's how it works: a primary care doctor at JFK Clinic sends a patient to Mercy Eye Care for a routine eye exam, which always includes checking eye pressure for glaucoma. If the optometrists detect a more serious condition in a patient, such as a detached retina, they send the patient to the emergency room or, if time isn't an issue, to a local ophthalmologist. "We pay for the initial visit if the patient cannot," Rooney said.
Other hospitals send patients to the eye care ministry, too. "We get referrals from nurses at other hospitals. Say that a cancer patient has been given drugs that affect his vision. He's exhausted his insurance and cannot afford to pay for new glasses," Rooney said. "We help."
Pediatric eye care
At the Mercy Hospital St. Louis shop, there are 500 eyeglass frames in six bays, and more in storage. A 19-month-old toddler in black frames played on the floor during a recent visit as his mother said he was on his third pair of frames.
The shop sees about 25 children a day from newborns to teenagers. If babies are born with cataracts, the opticians can fit them with glasses after their surgeries. Special glasses are needed to correct crossed eyes, wandering eyes, crossed muscles and a turning eye. "These kids need special corrective eyewear to develop properly," Rooney said. "We seek high maintenance" requiring regular return visits.
While most pediatric patients are covered by Medicaid or commercial insurance, the eye care ministry offers assistance in complex cases where families still struggle to meet the costs.
"We step in and see what we can do. We won't let them out of here without what they need," Rooney said.
"What we try to create is the best eyewear shops in St. Louis," Rooney said. "Our staff sees everyone from the very wealthy to the indigent. We treat them all the same and give the same expertise. We treat them the best they've been treated, and they come back."
Rooney's name is on every receipt along with his phone number. The patients can call if their glasses don't work properly. "That's our ministry," he said. "Let's solve the problem."
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