I always wanted to be an optometrist. Always.
It started when I was just a kid with my geeky fascination for eyeglass frames and turned into a longing for a vital way to help not only patients but myself too. I look back now with 40 years in optometry. I am so grateful…
As will become evident by my voice in this article, this message is mostly for female pre-optometry students who are preparing to join optometry’s ranks. That disclaimer made, I hope male pre-optometry students enjoy the message too. This article has taken shape through the many conversations I’ve had with applicants over the years.
I will describe the unique nature of the relationships you will have as doctor-to-patient and how the autonomy of being a woman professional will inherently help make relationships with your own peers—personal or business—to be healthier and more balanced.
The idea for this article came to me after an especially impactful conversation I had with a female applicant’s father. He made an argument I’d heard many times, but this particular time it sparked a light bulb moment in me. This father did not want his daughter to seek a professional grad school education, but rather wanted her to take on a role traditional in his culture, namely marriage, children, and to be a helpmate to her husband. He therefore wanted her education designed to successfully serve this objective.
I wasn’t offended by what could have been described as his sexist remarks. Instead I heard his loving, respectful, and sincere concern for his daughter.
The lightbulb went on: I thought back over the many years I have been a woman professional and understood that it was the power I gained from being an educated professional that gave me the personal gravitas to favorably balance all relationships to which I am a partner, be they business or personal. What continues to sustain me is that I am privileged to enjoy the unique and sacred nature of the doctor-patient relationship—a relationship that for the average person, is not a common experience.
I was raised in the early 1960’s when daughters were expected to secure their futures through marriage and children just like this father wants for his daughter. With climbing divorce rates and the limited time taken up from a woman’s life that is required to parent young children, considering this as a lifeplan for a young woman in today’s climate is arguably not a good one. In my own case, I raised two children who are now successful adults. Both no longer need any parenting from me. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to enjoy being their parent and have great long-distance relationships with them, but because they are mature and are busy pursuing their own lives and careers, they don’t need my parenting any longer. The actual time it takes to play an active parenting role requires only a short portion of a woman’s adult life.
What I would have explained to this father is this: encourage your daughter to be strong and independent by encouraging her to get an education and become a professional. Empower her to be someone to be reckoned with in her personal relationships. Solid marital relationships are made up of two people who are equally powerful, who have mutual respect for each other. Think of two people on each end of a weight scale keeping it balanced, where their ability to provide for both themselves and each other is equally powerful. Empowering your daughter gives her the gravitas she needs to balance her power with her mate’s. She becomes someone to respect, to be accountable to, which gives her built-in immunity to abuses that may occur as a result of imbalance such as being taken for granted or not having the means to leave the relationship should physical or emotional abuse occur. If her marriage fails, she would not have to stay in an unhappy situation merely for support, and would be free to make choices that are best for her and her children. This gravitas will also serve her well in the role of a parent to not only small children, but in a similar role as adviser and confidante to her adult children as well.
By achieving your goal of being an autonomous woman professional, you will not only be in a position to serve patients, but also to gain the autonomy you need to best balance all your personal relationships and therefore be the one who runs your own life.
The privilege of being a doctor of optometry in the doctor-patient relationship…
For our entire lives, women are told how important various personal relationships will be. First you are someone’s daughter, then cherished friendships come along, then romantic relationships, leading to the relationships of both marriage and children. The intimacy, depth, and longevity of these relationships are what defines us and give our lives joy…
But there is another equally important relationship, that of being the doctor in the doctor-patient relationship. It is just as fulfilling and important as all the others.
The doctor-patient relationship is unique, having the potential to grow and develop over many years. The patient relies on the doctor to be the relationship’s purveyor; it is the doctor who is the professional, who invests his or her talent and resources to be worthy of a patient’s trust. When it comes to providing expert care, it is the doctor who takes on the responsibility of investing the time necessary to stay on top of his or her game by being a lifelong learner. Patients place their most precious sense, their sight, in their optometrist’s hands. It is up to the doctor to be worthy of that trust…
Becoming a doctor of optometry is a goal worthy of lifelong pursuit.
When I think back on the 30 years I spent delivering patient care, I remember how I especially enjoyed taking patients’ case histories. Optometrists typically see their patients alone, just the patient and doctor. I can look back now and see myself sitting chairside to a patient, in the exam room with lowered lights (our working illumination), taking a case history. Patients are comforted by a doctor’s attention and therefore willing to explain what’s bothering them. . .
“Mrs. Jones, it sounds as perhaps your headaches are more related to stress than from eye strain,” I comment in response to her disclosure. . .
I continue to listen attentively as she explains that her husband is terminally ill and how much responsibility she carries because she is his primary caregiver—stress that would overwhelm anyone. Helping her unburden, I follow-up and ask her questions about how she is able to cope, who can she rely on for support, who does she turn to when she is having trouble keeping up. . .
“Do you have a friend, a family member, or church, synagogue or mosque support group? Access to counseling services?”
As the exam proceeds, I form a silent prayer for her comfort and support.
I could cite many examples of conversations—accompanied with both tears and laughter—that I’ve had with patients over the years. These doctor-patient relationships involve sacred trust. Worthy of their trust and confidence, patients will hopefully one day trust you to be their doctor like they trusted me over my many years of practice.
Indeed, the doctor-patient relationship is just as fulfilling as all the rest and maybe even more so. The best part is that for the doctor worthy of its stewardship, it happens all day long, through an entire career.
For the last 10 years serving as an admissions adviser, I have had this same doctor-patient relationship with optometry school applicants. Being in partnership with pre-optometry students, as it turns out, is much like the doctor-patient relationship. I am privileged to hear about their hopes, dreams, and anxieties about the admissions process. I then advise them on how they can be more successful as they go about becoming competitive as an applicants.
I am thankful that providence has put me in this role a second time.
So I pause today and look back at myself—that very young woman deciding on optometry school. Back then, my mother didn’t think the risk of optometry school was a good idea. This fear came from her own experience of losing her husband, my father, who died of cancer when I was five years old, becoming a widow at 35 years old with three little girls relying solely upon her for support. Instead of the long, challenging route of professional grad school, she tried to convince me to play it safe with the shorter route through secretarial college because she thought it would be easier and less risky. Though at the time I resented her lack of confidence in me, given her state of mind and panicked concern, I now understand her position.
With my father’s unexpected death, I learned without a doubt why I had to be self-reliant. Even with best laid plans, life is unpredictable. I knew for certain that I would do whatever was necessary to be able to take care of myself no matter what life-adversity I might face.
And true to form, my own life has taken its own unanticipated downturns. But because of the autonomy and personal power I owe to my professional life, I have always been in the driver’s seat, able to call my own shots, and take care of myself thanks to a mentally stimulating profession, solid income, and the emotional support I get from my professional community.
What I would have explained to this caring father was that if he did indeed have his daughter’s best interests at heart, he would encourage her to use her intelligence and personal industry to become independent. Help her to be strong and thus be a player, someone to be reckoned with. Help her to become powerful so that she wouldn’t be forced to merely settle for unfair treatment in her personal relationships. Help her understand that for her lifetime, she will be privileged to serve professionally as the doctor in the sacred doctor-patient relationship. It is with this strength and authority that she will enter into other intimate personal relationships, becoming a partner to be respected and valued.
Encourage her to stand on her own two feet.
Above all, encourage her to educate herself, cultivating the expertise necessary to be a doctor, to have the privilege of serving others. As a human being, it is our highest calling.
Thank you optometry for being the “container” for my entire adult life. With my now 40 years of experience in this profession, I can aver that there would have been no better way to live my life.
Relationships come and go but optometry and its community has always been here for me, providing me with a noble way to earn a living, intellectual stimulation, and beautiful doctor-patient relationships. I wish the same for all you pre-optometry students out there working so hard to accomplish your goals.
It’s all ahead of you!