My experience has not always been easy, but it has always been fulfilling.
I first started my journey to become an optometrist when I was getting my annual eye exam, being fitted for contact lenses. I was in college pursuing my bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in University. While I was getting my eyes checked, my optometrist asked what I planned to do after graduation. I had always wanted to become a doctor but had not decided which specialty to pursue. I told him I was thinking about gynecology, and he asked if I had ever considered optometry. He told me to think about it, saying that although gynecology was a noble profession, I would have no life because babies come whenever they do and it was a high-stress job with high liability. On the other hand, he said, in optometry there was no blood, no “meet me at the hospital” messages any time of the day or night. He also said it was the perfect job for a woman because I would be able to have a good family life, I could set my own hours, and work in whichever practice modality I chose. Optometry offered the ability for me to have the work-life balance we all desire. I thought about it, and everything he said made so much sense. I decided to apply to optometry school.
Ole Miss prepared me for going to optometry school not only academically but mentally as I was used to being part of a small minority in a predominantly White setting. I was accepted into Southern College of Optometry (SCO) in Memphis, Tennessee. Our class was about 30% women; however, I was one of 2 Black students in the class. Fortunately, I was well received by my classmates, even to the point of being given a surprise birthday party. The optometry school experience was good. The 2 classes ahead and mine had a few Black students, and we had an active National Optometric Student Association chapter, of which I was president.
In optometry school, I made lifelong friends. Nearing graduation, many classmates had already planned to practice with family or other optometrists. Fortunately, one of the doctors I had done my externship with offered me a job.
After graduation, I worked with a legendary optometrist, C. Clayton Powell, OD, and was exposed to a wealth of information only a person of his stature could provide. I worked with him for a while then decided to take up another opportunity in a department store optical. The schedule initially had me going to more than one store, sometimes on the same day. I was ultimately assigned to 1 store and everything went well until one day when we had a walk-in patient. She filled out the paperwork and was brought in for the exam. I greeted her and told her my name. She looked at me and asked, “You’re the doctor? Well, I changed my mind,” and she left. I suppose I didn’t look the way she wanted or expected.
After a few years, I was ready to open my own practice. At a recruiting meeting for a commercial location, an individual told me that I would never make it in private practice because it is too hard. That only encouraged me to work harder to prove them wrong.
An optician I met during my time at the department store optical had retired and begun servicing optical equipment. We had talked, and he knew I wanted to be in private practice. He let me know there was a local optometrist who was retiring and that I should talk to him about buying his practice. I went to my bank to apply for the loan and was met with all the reasons why I would not be able to get a loan to purchase the practice. I was discouraged but did not give up. Eventually, I did manage to secure a loan. Then the fun began: decorating the office, buying equipment, meeting with industry representatives, selecting the frames, and getting acclimated to running a practice.
I have noticed over the years that certain contact lens and frame representatives handle the accounts in a different manner. Some contact lens reps never come by my office, but I talk to other colleagues who have received all kinds of perks. Or I can visit other offices and they have point-of-purchase displays that are never offered to me, even though we do a lot of business with the same companies.
However, there is a lot of good in optometry. Once during an exam, an 8-year-old girl popped her head out from behind the phoropter and said she wanted to tell me something. She said, “Thank you for helping me see better.” This solidified for me that I had made the right career choice. Another patient returned to let me know that because I had referred her for further treatment, she was prevented from having a stroke.
My father gave me some advice when I started my practice: Treat each patient as if they are family. I have seen some of my patients grow up and bring their children in for eye exams. It is an amazing experience to watch patients put on glasses for the first time and see their excitement and joy over how much better they can see. It is a treat to help patients decide which frames look best on them and to assure first-time contact lens wearers that they can insert the lenses—and not only will they not faint, they will see clearly.
I go the extra mile to make sure everyone is taken care of, even if it means coming in early and leaving late. Being a woman in optometry means having patience, acting as a mother figure or a psychologist, and laughing and crying with patients. Everything my optometrist said was true, and I am so fortunate to have crossed paths with him when I did.