Dr. April Walgenbach stands in one of the examination rooms at Peninsula Community Health Services Eye Clinic in Soldotna, Alaska, on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Dr. April Walgenbach stands in one of the examination rooms at Peninsula Community Health Services Eye Clinic in Soldotna, Alaska, on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

SoHi grad leads eye clinic at PCHS

Throughout her education, Dr. April Walgenbach said she always intended to return to her hometown

After graduating from Soldotna High School, Dr. April Walgenbach followed a familiar path — leaving Alaska to pursue further education in the Lower 48. She attended university in Arizona, took a few years off, then went to optometry school in Oregon. Throughout her education, she said she always intended to return to her hometown community.

“It was always the goal,” Walgenbach said Thursday. “To come back here. Serve the community.”

In 2021, Walgenbach was back home and looking to start a practice. She was approached by Peninsula Community Health Services about heading up an expansion of their Soldotna facility, adding an in-house eye clinic.

That eye clinic opened in May, initially featuring Walgenbach as its sole optometrist.

Walgenbach said Thursday that she’s always been drawn to optometry. An optometrist, she explained, is the primary care provider for the eyes.

Walgenbach does glasses and contact lenses, but also examines the “whole health of the eye.” She has equipment to photograph the back of the eye, can examine the retinas, check for signs of illness like diabetes, and can refer for surgery.

An interest in optometry was borne of frequent visits to the optometrist as a youth.

“I had really poor eyesight.”

Walgenbach said she spent a lot of time in Dr. Robert O’Connell’s office in Kenai. She said his passion for the profession made an impression on her. Paired with an enjoyment for anatomy, Walgenbach discovered her career path.

After graduating from SoHi in 2009, Walgenbach attended Northern Arizona University, graduating with a degree in biology in 2013.

“I took a few years off in between undergrad and optometry school — took a few years in the professional world, and was like ‘now I know for sure I want to be an optometrist.’”

Walgenbach attended a four-year optometry program in Forest Grove, Oregon, at the Pacific University College of Optometry. After completing her education in 2021, she returned to the Kenai Peninsula, where she began working with PCHS.

“They were looking to expand services and add eye care clinics. They knew that’s something the community needed here. They had reached out to me — heard I was in the community. I just got back from school and was looking to start a practice,” she said.

The need was identified when PCHS would refer patients to other locations and see those referrals go without follow-up, seeing long wait lists, and hearing from the community, Marquitta Andrus, manager of marketing and outreach, said.

Since opening in May, Walgenbach said the response has been positive. They’ve since expanded to include a second examination room and a second doctor, Dr. Bradley Cross.

Walgenbach said because she grew up in the community, she’s known many of her patients “forever.” Even with those she hasn’t, she can find common interests in topics like fishing.

Having an eye clinic at PCHS empowers the organization to improve convenience by putting more services under the same roof — an example given by Walgenbach was diabetic patients, who need a dilated eye exam as part of an annual checkup. That now happens in one building, instead of across providers and offices.

PCHS is a nonprofit organization that receives federal funding as a Federally Qualified Health Center. Andrus said that means both that they can offer a sliding fee scale to better serve the community, and that they are subject to “strict” measures of quality. That federal funding allows them to provide care to everyone.

Andrus said they are working to improve community access to their services all the time, recently expanding their insurance compatibility to include VSP and opening their facilities on Saturdays.

For more information about PCHS and its services, visit pchsak.org.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

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