Robert and Kimberly Molter had enjoyed dual practices in Michigan but when the opportunity presented itself to sell their practices, they did and happily began the next chapter of their lives- retirement. Regrettably, for Robert, it wasn’t long before he was asking “What now?” Megan Webber and Helene Dameris of KTG met the Molters through their recent information sharing webinar with the PNT (Pham Ngoc Thach) Optometry Club in Saigon, Vietnam. Their former student introduced KTG to Robert and Kimberly and it was then that we learned how their brief retirement turned into a four-year mission in Saigon as professors at the newly established PNT School of Optometry.
The Molters never had a chance to do in-depth travel while running and operating a full-scale optometry clinic, so when Robert learned that a younger colleague of his had traveled to Fiji for a year he was intrigued and started looking for international opportunities. This is when Robert found VOSH International (https://vosh.org) and learned how they locate places where there is a great need for vision care professionals and optometrists. VoshCorp, a committee within Vosh International, forwarded their resumes to the Brien Holden Foundation who then offered them postings in either Africa or Vietnam. They chose Vietnam.
Robert and Kimberly rolled up their sleeves and jumped in, managing clearance and visa issues, finding lodging, and becoming quickly engaged with the rather large ex-pat community in Saigon. Robert enjoyed playing soccer or “futsal” as it is called there with people from around the globe and Kimberly met women friends through a local health club, as well as both of them enjoying the plethora of cuisines available at the local spots and carts in and around their neighborhood.
Robert explained that the Brien Holden Foundation had been working behind the scenes for almost 10 years to get the school up and running before Robert and Kimberly ever stepped foot in Saigon. The Brien Holden team was extensive and included very talented optometrists from around the globe including Dr. Luigi Billoto who coordinated all of the educational content, and Dr. May Ho from Australia who coordinated all of the Asian programs.
Molter quickly realized that Vietnam could be a difficult place to get things done in a timely manner. Frustrated by trying to work with the medical school’s administration, the Molters found that sometimes it is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission when arranging for instructional materials or other instructional activities. Another interesting nuance is that while the Optometry school is run by the Health Department of Saigon and is part of the local medical community, there is a separate Health Department that services the outlying and rural areas. Robert explained that it may have been better to have the Optometry School positioned within the jurisdiction of the Health Department servicing the outlying communities as the rural areas are in great need of services and there is little opportunity for vision screening there.
Megan asked Robert and Kimberly if there was any language barrier to instruction in the school with the students. Fortunately for the Molters, English is compulsory in Saigon so the students need to have high English proficiency to apply to the school. At first, it was a slow trickle of students applying into the Optometry school but now the tides are changing in a very short period of time!
Robert and Kimberly explained that the PNT School of Optometry should be its own school. Currently it is a Bachelor’s program in the nursing branch of the Clinical division of UPNT Medical School but fortunately, Vietnam realizes the value of the school and the Molters are cautiously optimistic that in ten years it will be its own Master’s level program. “It is important to recognize the importance of Optometry as the Frontline of Eye Care,” said Robert. The School is still going strong today but it is not without its challenges. The original plan was that for five years the Brian Holden Foundation would support the program, but progress has been slow. Thankfully they have signed on for a second 5-year contract but at a lesser financial support level. Right now, the pressing concern is that the school needs to develop a homegrown teaching corps; this requires those former students selected to teach to have a minimum of a Master’s degree. The Molters continue to try to get their former students this master’s level education but it’s not easy; currently they need to find programs outside of the country to achieve this level of education in optometry. Being a teacher is a highly venerated position– even more so than a doctor; but even with this high status, the salaries are relatively low and the school is always seeking additional faculty to keep up with the demand.
Megan found it fascinating that, just as in India, there is cultural hesitancy about contact lenses and glasses. Robert told Megan that while in the past Myopia control was not a big concern, now it is growing and he was happy to have been able to help institute a Myopia Control clinic at one of the private eye hospitals in Saigon. The Molters have made a huge impact in their four years in Saigon at the school and continue to stay in touch with their former students and colleagues. It is the dedication and selflessness of optometrists like Robert and Kimberly that make the world a brighter place.