Dana Dillon: bringing sight to the world

An interest in service and a spirit of adventure has taken a Lovell High School graduate around the world.

Dana Dillon, daughter of Chauna Bischoff of Lovell and Scott Dillon of Spokane, Wash., is part of a team from the University of Utah that travels the world to perform vision assessments and on-site surgeries, restoring sight to people who never thought they’d see again, a heartwarming experience for the team.

Dillon, a 1995 graduate of LHS, is a clinical applications specialist for Alcon of Ft. Worth, Texas, and bases out of her home in South Jordan, Utah, to travel throughout the U.S. training surgeons and their staffs on the use of LASIK and other laser applications.

That’s her day job, but what Dillon loves to do is help people around the globe as part of a team from the Global Outreach Division of the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah, her former employer.

Dillon was a physiology major at the University of Wyoming, earning her bachelor of science degree in 2000. After interning at her uncle Dr. Barry Welch’s ophthalmology practice in Cody, she went on to become a certified ophthalmology technician at the University of Minnesota and work as an ophthalmic surgical assistant, similar to a physician’s assistant but for an ophthalmologist. That’s the role she plays for the Moran Eye Center’s Global Outreach team.

The Moran outreach team doesn’t just work overseas. It also works locally and regionally, hosting two charity surgery days per year in the Salt Lake Valley performing cataract surgery and traveling monthly to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona for eye screenings and cataract surgery. Dillon attends the Navajo clinics once every three months and enjoys the experience, noting that the clinic is at the front door of the spectacular Monument Valley.

All of the outreach work is done on a volunteer basis and is funded by donations, she noted.

Overseas work

Dana Dillon meets with a patient following surgery during her February trip to Tanzania with the Moran Eye Center Global Outreach team. Courtesy photo
Dana Dillon meets with a patient following surgery during her February trip to Tanzania with the Moran Eye Center Global Outreach team.
Courtesy photo

During the past year Dillon has expanded her scope of service globally, traveling with the Moran team to Micronesia in July of 2015 and Tanzania in February of 2016. Both were incredible experiences, she said.

Dillon spent 10 days in Micronesia – south of Saipan and Guam and north of Papua New Guinea in the far western Pacific Ocean – last summer.

The Moran team worked on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, performing assessments and surgeries.

“We also teach teachers, so when we leave they can continue to work,” Dillon said. “You don’t have to be a doctor to make a difference. We helped them get a program started and come back every five to seven years to ensure continuous learning.

“We take equipment with us and build an OR (operating room) basically. We did leave one machine there so they can continue. There’s one surgeon on the island now for the whole nation of Micronesia. The next closest surgeons are on Guam.”

Dillon said she enjoyed her visit to Pohnpei.

“When you fly in it looks like Jurassic Park, with one big mountain in the middle,” she said. “There’s a big waterfall in the center of the island and jungle everywhere. It’s surrounded by a large reef. Each island in Micronesia has its own language.”

Tanzania

A young Tanzanian woman leads her blind father to a Moran Eye Center Global Outreach clinic for an assessment or surgery in February. Courtesy photo
A young Tanzanian woman leads her blind father to a Moran Eye Center Global Outreach clinic for an assessment or surgery in February.
Courtesy photo

Language is also an issue in Tanzania, Dillon said, noting that though Swahili and English are official languages, there are more than 100 tribes in the country, each with its own language. Often a patient would bring a friend to the eye exam who knows a little English, she said, to communicate with the medical staff, which also had a Swahili-speaking interpreter on site.

In Micronesia, patients came to the clinic “from all over the place,” whereas in Tanzania the medical staff traveled away from the surgical center to perform assessments, after which the patient would travel to the clinic for surgery on buses sent out to transport them or would walk to the city.

On day one the assessment team traveled about 45 minutes from the surgical center, day two an hour and a half and day three three hours.

“We had actually brought one of the surgeons from Tanzania to Moran to train for two to four months, then he went back and went to the villages to tell them we were coming,” Dillon said. “We screened 2,200 people. We did 240 cataract surgeries and retina laser procedures in conjunction with Cornell University. We had to build our own OR from scratch and we used massage tables because of the head rest feature.

“We brought our own microscopes and they were heavy, so all we could have (as a traveler) was one carry-on because of the weight of the equipment we had to bring.”

Dillon said restoring sight is rewarding.

“The blind need 2½ people to care for them that are taken out of the workforce,” she said. “That can really hurt a family. Even if you only do one eye they are able to care for themselves.”

Without access to cataract surgery – a common procedure in the United States – people in Tanzania would be blind “for years and years” with the condition, Dillon said. People would be led to the assessment center and later to the surgery center with a stick.

“Everyone has a stick,” she said. “In one case we had a husband who could see about four feet leading his wife, who was completely blind. The surgery went great and they got to see each other for the first time in, like, 10 years…They all have huge smiles when they get their eyesight back. They wear their best clothes to come to the clinic.

“We learned just enough of the local language to offer comfort, and at the last village three kids on motorcycles were taking the elders from village to clinic. They really honor their elders there.”

Cataracts look like amber beads after being removed from the eye as seen in this close-up photograph taken in Tanzania. Courtesy photo
Cataracts look like amber beads after being removed from the eye as seen in this close-up photograph taken in Tanzania.
Courtesy photo

The surgical center and main base for the Moran team was located in the capital city of Dodoma, and Dillon said she always felt safe, even when traveling for assessments.

There are many large Baobab Trees, the Tree of Life from the “Lion King” movie, in Tanzania, Dillon said, and goats – “lots of goats.” Dillon said she did get to eat some local food but mainly ate at the hotel before a day of screening or surgery.

“We’re very careful about what we eat and drink. You don’t want to get there and get sick,” she said.

Dillon noted that the clinic lost power on the third day of surgery, so the team had to improvise.

“We kept going,” she said. “I affixed two flashlights on either side of the microscope to continue the surgery.”

Dillon is out with the assessment team, then scrubs for the surgery.

“I help with the screening and help with the biometry – finding the power of the implants. Sometimes I do a scan for retina detachment.”

History of service

Moran has trips planned for Guatemala and Haiti in the near future, continuing its good work in the world. Dillon said the Moran Eye Center trips are 100 percent funded by donations and the Center operated under the theme “See the Need, Be the Change.”

The Moran Eye Center trains doctors, nurses and related eye care professionals in more than 25 countries, according to the Center’s website, while also bringing “the most promising” international surgeons to Utah for intensive training. The Center has worked in South Sudan, Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya in Africa, besides Tanzania, and in Asia the Center has worked in Myanmar, Bhutan, Indonesia, India and Nepal, as well as Micronesia and Guam. The Center operates an educational exchange program in Nepal to teach residents for work in the developing world.

The Center has worked in Bolivia in South America and in Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Grenada and Guatemala in Central America and the Caribbean.

The message, Dillon said, is that “there are still a lot of people in the world who are good, even though there are a lot of people who are bad. We hope we can make a difference in someone’s life so they’ll feel like doing good.

“It’s symbolic that people leave their sticks (after surgery). We gathered them to display in our office back home.”

This kind of service comes naturally to Dillon due to her upbringing.

“My family has always wanted to give back and help people,” she said. “My Grandfather Welch (Scott) was always willing to help people, and my Grandmother Dillon (Loa) had a strong connection to the Indian population in Montana and Wyoming. I find myself leaving shirts, socks and shoes behind when I travel (some with Wyoming logos).

“It’s been a good experience, but we help people in the local community, too.”

By David Peck