By Ava Kikut
Scheie Vision Summer 2018
You are just finishing reading an article in Scheie Vision when your name is called. You look up to see a petite woman in royal blue scrubs standing in the doorway between the lobby and the clinic. The woman leads you into an empty exam room and introduces herself. “My name is Lang. L-A-N-G.”
An ophthalmic technician, Lang first asks your name and date of birth. She types notes as you answer questions about your symptoms, pain level, and health history. She hands you what looks like a masquerade mask with one eye hole and asks you to read letters from a screen across the room. She performs a peripheral vision test, asking you to say how many fingers she is holding up on either side of your face. She turns out the light and shines a bright beam in each of your eyes.
Lang performs each test with energy. You are one of dozens of patients she has seen today, but it doesn’t show. Like the other technicians at the Scheie Eye Institute, Lang loves working with people. She is thoroughly trained, detail-oriented, agile, and compassionate. She seamlessly gathers information for the physician while making you feel comfortable.
Technically, Lang is one of Scheie’s newest technicians. But she has known this eye institute longer than most of the staff and faculty. Lang trained in the Scheie Medical Technologies Program during the mid-1980s, only a few years after her family immigrated to Philadelphia from Cambodia.
Lang was eight when the Khmer Rouge (communist party) seized power in Cambodia in 1975. Her family was evacuated from their village and placed in an agricultural labor camp for the next four years.
When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, bringing an end to the Khmer Rouge Regime, Lang and her family fled the work camp and returned to their home village. Shortly after, her parents decided to leave Cambodia to find a better life. They paid in gold to be escorted to a point close to the Thai border, walked several miles through the jungle, and made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, only to be turned around.
“The Thai officers forced us at gunpoint to get on a bus,” said Lang. As they rode through Thailand, villagers tried handing Lang and her family plastic bags filled with water and rice through the bus windows. Confused by the gesture, they didn’t take the bags. “We could not speak their language, but we could see the sadness on their faces, like they wanted to tell us something but they couldn’t.” The buses drove through Bangkok and across the border, leaving the refugees back on the Cambodian side of the Himalayan Mountains.
Lang and her family used ropes to hoist themselves down the slopes and through minefields. Over the next several months, they moved from sunrise to sunset from one village to the next, where Vietnamese soldiers guarded them from Khmer Rouge soldiers that had retreated into the jungle. With no food, clean water, or medical help, many of the travelers didn’t survive.
“Along the way we lost a few more family members.,” said Lang. “I lost an uncle who was thirty years old. He stepped on a piece of bamboo and could have been cured with antibiotics, but we didn’t have any.”
When Lang’s family returned to their village, their property had been taken by neighbors. “We had lost everything,” she said. Her dad decided to take the family back to Thailand a second time. “I was twelve years old. I was too scared. I came along unwillingly. Now I’m glad I came here. I wouldn’t know where my family was if they had left me behind.”
The second time around, Lang, her siblings, and her parents were accepted into the Thai refugee camp. A year later, they moved to a camp in the Philippines, where her youngest brother was born. The family remained in the Philippines for a year, before coming to the United States, through San Francisco, to Philadelphia.
Lang’s family joined a refugee community in West Philadelphia. They moved into an apartment on 40th and Market, just above a Chinese restaurant. Lang and her siblings matriculated at University City High School across the street from the Scheie Eye Institute.
By that time, Lang was fourteen. She had not attended school for six years. She had been forbidden from speaking any language other than Cambodian under the Khmer Rouge, and would need to relearn other languages she knew prior to the war. Every afternoon, she and her siblings went to the University of Pennsylvania for English and math tutoring with study abroad undergraduate students from China. Afterward, they attended evening typing classes at West Philadelphia High School. On Saturdays they took Mandarin lessons at South Philadelphia High School. At home, they relearned Cantonese by watching Chinese movies. During the summers, Lang and the other refugee children attended school four days a week and picked blueberries for $3.25 a case the other three days.
Just as everyone pitched in with berry picking, all the siblings were expected to help support the family as soon as possible. After high school, Lang enrolled in an associates program at Harcum Junior College in Bryn Mawr, PA. While she was attending Harcum, the school’s program director found an advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer for an ophthalmic medical technologist training program at the Scheie Eye Institute.
“I didn’t even know what ophthalmology was,” Lang said. Nevertheless, she needed work and it sounded like a good opportunity. Scheie was only a block from where her family lived. Additionally, she learned, there were only eight accredited medical technologist training programs in the country at the time. “So I said to myself, I’d better go because that means there will be a job.” With the support of sponsors from Swarthmore College, Dr. John and Gail Gustard, Lang entered Scheie’s ophthalmic technician training program in 1986.
In ophthalmology clinics, technicians play a significant role in optimizing the quality and efficiency of care. Technicians at Scheie all become certified by the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personal in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO) as Ophthalmic Assistants (COAs), Ophthalmic Technicians (COTs), and/or Ophthalmic Medical Technologists (COMTs). Technicians prepare patients for exams and procedures and relay necessary information to physicians, including health history, medications, allergies, vitals, visual acuity, refractometry, lensometry, intraocular pressure, and several other measurements. Lang enthusiastically learned to perform these specialized preliminary screenings and tests. A people person, she enjoyed the opportunities to interact with patients as a technician, especially in pediatrics. In 1988, after completing COT training, Lang became a full-time ophthalmic technician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
In addition to working at CHOP, Lang also worked as a scribe technician every other weekend in the Scheie operating room (OR). At the time, there were only two ophthalmic technicians assisting physicians in the OR: Lang and Michele Sheehan. Lang had been a year ahead of Michele in the medical technologist training program and had helped to train her. The two enjoyed working together and became close friends.
Lang worked as a technician for ten years, before taking time off to focus on her three kids—a daughter, now a junior at Rutgers University, and two sons, currently attending Cherry Hill High School East. In the fall of 2017, she felt ready to return to work as a technician and was excited to learn of an opening at Scheie.
When Michele Sheehan, now the Director of Ophthalmic Technicians at Scheie, saw Lang’s application she was ecstatic. “I knew I wanted to hire her right away,” Michele said. “I knew what a sweet, kind, wonderful technician she was.” When Lang came to Scheie for an interview in the fall of 2017, she was excited to reconnect with her old friend. “The last time I saw Michele was at my wedding in 1994.”
Lang also met Lina Sanchez, the Manager of Technicians and Scribes. During the interview, Lang recounted her family’s experiences leaving Cambodia and coming to Philadelphia. Lina was so moved by Lang’s story she couldn’t let herself blink. “I didn’t want her to see me cry,” she said.
When Lang returned to the Scheie technician team in October 2017, she immediately felt at home. “This is where I belong,” she said. “Every day I am excited about my job. This department is unique because it is so well-organized. The team is also special in that it is filled with people who care about each other, including our wonderful managers. The patients are so nice and friendly; they make each day a joy. Our job is very rewarding because we help people see better. I have deep gratitude to all of the Ophthalmology Department’s faculty, staff, fellows, and residents, and especially for the other ophthalmic technicians. Thank you for welcoming me a second time. Words cannot express how overjoyed I am every day at Scheie to be surrounded by such a great team.”