Amy Wales '97

Restoring Eyesight Around the World

SightLife is the world’s leading and largest eye bank and nonprofit community health organization dedicated to eliminating corneal blindness through sight restoration and blindness prevention. Each year, SightLife serves tens of thousands of people in the United States and tens of thousands more in low- and middle-income countries globally, where over 90% of the world’s corneal blind live.

Amy Wales ’97, SightLife’s vice president of marketing and communications, is passionate about helping those struggling with corneal blindness to get a second chance that can come with restored eyesight and improved eye healthcare.

“Anyone can become corneal blind from a simple scratch to the clear outer lens of the eye,” explains Amy, who holds a master’s degree in Comparative Health and Social Policy from the University of Oxford, “but people facing barriers to protective eyewear (such as low-income farmers or factory workers) or who are malnourished and deficient in Vitamin A, or vulnerable to a range of eye diseases and infections, are at considerably higher risk.”

In addition to helping expand local eye donation and recovery policies and practices around the world, SightLife helps bolster local corneal transplant capabilities. In 2019, SightLife and its global partners provided 37,456 corneas for transplant, trained 1,664 clinical and eye bank personnel, and trained more than 875 local frontline healthcare workers in the treatment of corneal ulcers, which can lead to corneal blindness. This cadre of frontline healthcare workers reversed the progression to blindness and saved the sight of more than 6,500 low-resource patients in rural Nepal and India.

A Global Aperture

It’s no surprise that Amy found her calling in global public health. She has spent much of her life studying, living, and working abroad in England, Spain, Argentina, the Netherlands, South Africa, Mozambique, and Brazil, among other places.
“While people’s health is heavily determined by socio- economic and systemic factors, I also respect that health and healthcare can be deeply personal,” testifies Amy, “so I try to engage with stakeholders in a way that is non- judgmental, void of assumption, and deeply empathetic.”

Amy, who lives in Seattle with her husband and six-year- old twins, Joren and Sonia, notes that her interest in global issues can be traced to speaking Spanish with her paternal grandmother, also named Sonia, who grew up in Pachuca, Mexico. Later Amy attended Escuela Latona, a bi-lingual elementary school in Seattle before enrolling in sixth grade at Northwest.
As a senior Amy went to study in Seville for a month as part of Northwest School’s study abroad program. After graduation, she attended Middlebury College, obtaining a dual B.A. in Spanish and Latin American Studies, and Sociology. While at Middlebury, she spent the entirety of her junior year fully matriculated at a local university in Madrid, Spain, and then studied for more than half of her college senior year doing the same in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A year after graduating from college, Amy attended the University of Oxford to pursue her master’s degree. Confirms Amy: “My aperture has always been global.”
Before joining SightLife, Amy enjoyed a long tenure at PATH, the Seattle-based global health organization, where she helped drive communications and advocacy for product development teams in low-cost, people- centered nutrition, vaccine, and pharmaceutical delivery technologies.

Remedying Health Inequities

Amy’s passion for global public health, especially remedying health inequities for the most vulnerable, is rooted in her upbringing, including six years she spent at Northwest. She remembers Co-founder Paul Raymond speaking about injustices carried out by the U.S. Government in Central and South America during a lecture on imperialism. “‘They trained soldiers to kill with impunity!’” Amy recalls Paul bellowing loudly.

She also credits Leah Kosh’s Drawing class for teaching her how to connect the details with the bigger picture to tell a visual story, and Renee Fredrickson’s Advanced Chemistry class for instilling in her a curiosity about life.
“Renee had a unique ability to combine the rigors of science with the mystery of the universe, pushing us to ask ‘why?’ and ‘so what?’” recalls Amy. “We explored chemical reactions in the context of life’s bigger questions.”

Leading with Empathy

Equally important to Amy was Northwest’s core value of “courtesy and common sense,” a concept that helps her to listen before exploring ways to help.

“While I have a strong sense of social justice, I still try to lead with empathy, meeting policymakers and other stakeholders where they are,” says Amy. “Through collaborative advocacy and storytelling, my SightLife team and I work to paint a picture of what’s possible when barriers to care are removed, and people have the innovative tools and resources they need to improve not only their health but the health of their families and entire communities.”

This profile originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of The Northwest School Magazine.