Humanitarian at heart

WHEN optometrist Captain Lauren Matthews first joined the United States Air Force (USAF), she knew her job would be as challenging as it would be rewarding.

And one of the more rewarding aspects of her profession has been helping people. Last month she was in Fiji as part of the Pacific Angel project — which consisted of members from the US, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines — and offered humanitarian assistance including general health, dental, optometry, pediatrics and engineering work in Fiji.

“This is my first humanitarian trip. It has been so humbling and I am very thankful for the opportunity to come here to work alongside Fiji, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vanuatu, and France to serve the local community,” the 31-year-old said.

“It is an honour to work with these other countries to learn from them, make friends and meet so many people in Fiji.”

Capt Matthews says her career as a USAF operative began after she applied for a health scholarship program through the air force.

“I was headed down the wrong path in life so I decided to apply and the air force provides structure, a steady job, and constant challenges.

“I knew this would be good for me to make me grow. I also wanted to join the USAF to be an optometrist because we get to see many different situations that a normal optometrist may not.

“For example, we get to work with pilots and other professionals who have certain requirements for their eyes to ensure they can accomplish their important jobs.”

The challenges that come with donning the air force uniform are numerous, most of which has to do with time spent away from families.

“It is hard to be away from family, especially since I am stationed in Japan. Although I love the different duty locations such as this one in Fiji, family is very important to me and I have to make sure I balance my time and set aside money to get home to the US to see them.

“I think the most difficult part of my job is telling a patient bad news. I provide optometry services to military members who love their jobs and are very dedicated.

“Telling them they may have to wear glasses or have an eye issue that may affect their jobs (like pilots) is heartbreaking. I work through it knowing I am keeping them safe and my education has prepared me to make these tough calls.

“The best moments to me are when I get to truly help someone, when I get to treat a diagnosis to make someone’s overall health and happiness a little better.

“I have had many of these moments here in Fiji. I have given out hundreds and hundreds of glasses to help people see their beautiful country and families more clearly and lessen their pain from having bad vision.”

According to Capt Matthews, one of the perks of being both a military officer and a medical professional is practising optometry and working with amazing people in the US military.

She cited her recent trip to Fiji as an example of co-operation after she met and worked with personnel from Australia, Philippines, Vanuatu, Indonesia, France and Fiji.

“Being a part of this team has motivated me to work harder each day so I can do my part to make our air force even better.

“I am stationed in Japan so my plans are to finish my assignment there and see where the air force takes me next. I love serving my country and working alongside so many hardworking, dedicated people so my plan is to stay in the military as long as I can.”

She also encouraged young women to join the armed forces if they desired to.

“I would highly encourage the young girls here in Fiji to challenge themselves in their life goals. Join career fields that you dream of, not the ones that you think women should be in.

“The US Air Force has provided me unimaginable opportunities and learning experiences during the last four years.

“The military is an amazing culture where you are encouraged to push your limitations, educate yourself, achieve your goals and provided with opportunities to meet incredible people along the way.”