Jessica G. Shantha, MD, is this year’s Artemis Award winner, recognized for her medical care of Ebola survivors afflicted with sight-threatening uveitis and her dedication to addressing ophthalmic health disparities in sub-Saharan Africa.
Since 2014, the Academy’s Senior Ophthalmologist Committee has presented the annual award to a young ophthalmologist who demonstrates the utmost in patient care and goes above and beyond what is expected. Nominations for the award are solicited from societies represented on the Academy’s Council, the supranational ophthalmology societies as well as from academic department chairs and program directors. Dr. Shantha was nominated by the Georgia Society of Ophthalmology.
Now an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Emory Eye Center in Atlanta, Dr. Shantha grew up thinking globally.
“My early interest in world affairs stems from my father,” she said. “Originally from India, he made us aware of how he grew up and the social disparities among different regions of the world.”
This awareness has proved very influential. As she navigated each level of schooling, Dr. Shantha sought out global opportunities at every turn.
“My first medical mission experience was during a trip to Panama and Costa Rica in college. Seeing, firsthand, the differences in access to healthcare was eye opening. I knew from that moment my future in medicine would have some type of global component,” she said.
Fast-forward to the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Dr. Shantha was continuing to sketch out her different options for getting involved internationally. She not only traveled to Haiti multiple times to set up mobile eye clinics, but she also helped fundraise more than $35,000 for Project Medishare, a nonprofit providing Haitians with access to quality primary care services.
After graduating summa cum laude from medical school, Dr. Shantha began her ophthalmology residency at Emory University. There she participated in Emory’s Global Health Residency Scholars Program, which involves both a yearlong international curriculum and a one-month clinical rotation in Ethiopia. The experience helped prepare her for a career-changing moment when the Ebola epidemic hit West Africa in 2014.
During her senior year — one year into the epidemic, Dr. Shantha and a team led by Steven Yeh, MD, cared for a repatriated U.S. physician, Ian Crozier, MD, who became infected with the Ebola virus while volunteering in Sierra Leone. After he developed intense ocular pain and significant vision loss in his left eye, Dr. Shantha and her fellow Emory physicians spent two months managing what they discovered to be post-Ebola associated uveitis.
Their seminal finding of viral persistence in the eye informed the World Health Organization and other public health experts about the urgent need for ophthalmic care in West African patients affected by the virus. Afterwards, Dr. Shantha and her colleagues traveled to Liberia — an area significantly impacted by the epidemic — to share what they had learned from their treatment of Dr. Crozier.
Empowering local communities. Since then, Dr. Shantha has continued to work in West Africa, traveling frequently to assess the ocular complications of Ebola in thousands of patients and leading some of the first vision-restorative cataract surgeries for pediatric and adult Ebola survivors. In addition, she has translated this experience to the medical care of hundreds affected by the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a region challenged by instability and military conflict.
What Dr. Shantha is especially proud of is helping to build educational and medical capacity so that local physicians can continue to provide care for their communities when the volunteers return home.
“There is an unmet need to create sustainable partnerships in resource-limited settings that can last for several years,” she said. “So, to elevate ophthalmic leaders in West Africa, we’ve organized multiple national symposia and workshops, we’ve raised funding to obtain ophthalmic equipment, and we’ve continued to work side by side with local surgeons to provide them with hands-on training.”
Within the last year, Dr. Shantha has also mentored a Sierra Leonean ophthalmologist at Emory University.
“Mentoring is an important aspect of global ophthalmology,” she said. “It helps us maintain a constant exchange of ideas among everyone involved, exchanging information bidirectionally, because, really, we are all teaching one another.”
And that’s particularly important as physicians navigate the challenges of COVID-19, added Dr. Shantha. “Prior to the pandemic, we’d already been exploring the interplay between infectious disease and the eye. But now more than ever, it’s especially important that we collaborate broadly with all of our colleagues around the world to better understand how in fact the eye can serve as a surveillance system for identifying and treating these diseases.”
Want to Learn More?
There are several ways for residents, fellows and early-career physicians to get involved in volunteering abroad. To find out how you can get started, read EyeNet’s “Global Ophthalmology.”
Also see the YO Info 2020 International Edition to learn more about ophthalmology around the world.