By Tom Cramer
Thursday, April 16, 2015
These days it seems that most of the graduate students at the VA eye clinic in Daytona Beach, Florida, are attractive young women.
It’s a happy coincidence that’s just fine and dandy with 92-year-old Orville Swett, who volunteers at the clinic.
A Woman’s Touch
“We have some students who are guys, but most of them are girls,” said the Army Veteran. “I share my war stories with them. They’re very interested in hearing the stories. I think it gives them some perspective. It helps them understand who their patients are; who it is they’re helping.”
“When I first started working back in 1947, we didn’t have any female optometrists,” said the retired optician. “But the women make good optometrists. Sometimes you need a woman’s touch.”
“Most of our externs and residents are 25 to 28-years-old,” said Dianne Kowing, chief optometrist at the clinic. “Orville interacts with them daily. He sits at the front check-in area so every morning he chats with them when they enter the clinic. He asks them how they are doing and finds out a little about their lives. He only talks about the war when they directly question him about it. When he does speak of his experiences, it helps them to empathize with the Veterans they treat.”
“Two days ago I was speaking with Orville about my Army service at Walter Reed,” said Darcy Eberle, an optometry resident at the clinic. “As we wrapped up our conversation, he mentioned that the next day was his anniversary. I asked if it was a marriage anniversary. He nonchalantly said it was the anniversary of the day he landed at Anzio.”
Swett has been volunteering his time at the eye clinic for 25 years. He’s logged about 38,000 hours, most of them spent patiently adjusting eye glasses for Veterans who visit the clinic.
He refers to it as ‘troubleshooting.’
“Everybody seems to need their glasses adjusted these days,” he observed. “I don’t know why. I had a patient today from Indiana who had new glasses but he couldn’t see. I fixed them in five minutes. I knew just what was wrong. Especially on these progressive lenses, if they’re not adjusted properly, you can’t see.”
“It makes me feel good to help somebody.” Orville Swett, VA volunteer
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Swett said that during the course of 25 years he’s had to deal with all types of personalities, the vast majority of them pleasant, but a few not so pleasant.
“I know how to handle them,” said the tough old Veteran, who nearly died from a head wound during the Allied invasion of Italy. “I had one guy come in here and throw a pair of glasses at me. He told me he couldn’t see with them. So I picked up his glasses and threw them in the trash. He said, ‘Why did you do that?’ And I said well, you told me you can’t see with them, so what do you need them for?”
The disgruntled patient was more than a bit shocked.
“The guy got upset,” Swett said with a smile. “He told me he wouldn’t be able to drive home without his glasses, so I pulled them out of the trash and adjusted them for him. He was very happy. He said, “Hey, I can see!’ And I said, ‘Good. Now go home.’
Despite the occasional rough customer, there can be no doubt Swett takes great pleasure in his work. He arrives at the eye clinic early, every day.
“I do this because there’s a great need,” he said. “I’m here for the Veterans. It keeps me going, because it makes me feel good to help somebody. Helping these guys has done more for me than I’ve done for them. It helps keep me alive.”
At 92, does Swett ever think about hanging up his spurs as a volunteer?
“Probably not,” he said. “As long as I can use my hands, and my head, I’ll be here.”
To learn more about volunteering at a VA near you, visit www.volunteer.va.gov/directory.