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Bryan Wolynski, OD, FAAO, and owner of Glasses on First in New York City, talks about falling into low vision, working with family, and driving blind in the latest Optometry Times Q&A.
I was born in Brooklyn, moved to Long Island at age five, and grew up in Oceanside, Long Island. My mom was a teacher’s aide for kindergarten, now retired. My father and are I in business together in an optical, and my mother takes cares of the money. [Laughs]
I’ve done a lot of different things. I initially worked at a Pearle Vision Center. Then I got bored with that and did a residency; at the time I wanted to pursue academia. In a way, I was upset that I didn’t go that track initially, but now I’m thankful because I did need to put some years under my belt. I came back to New York City after my residency into the optical with my father.
My father immigrated to this country at age 16. He joined the Marines at 18-he wasn’t even a citizen-and went to Vietnam. When he returned, he didn’t know what he was going to do. So, a friend of his was an optometrist, and from there he got interested in opticianry. The military paid for him to go to school to become an optician. My father was in Albany taking his opticianry exam and practical to get his licensing on the day I was born. He always says he was the last one to know I was born. [Laughs]
Previous Q&A: Cheryl Donnelly, CEO, British Contact Lens Association
It has its ups and downs. My father was an optician in the 1970s and 1980s in the heyday of no insurance and lots of cash-paying patients, a different way than optometry and even opticianry is practiced now. When I finished my residency in 2002 and came back to New York City, I wanted to incorporate a lot of things that he wasn’t used to. It was a big challenge for both of us-when I started dilating patients, he said, “What are you doing that for?” He didn’t understand. I said, “No, Dad. This is a new era and we have to move forward and take care of our patients in a new and better way.” He eventually came around. What’s great is that we can have our differences, but at the end of the day we’re family.
We’ve had a presence in the Upper East Side since the 1980s. We’ve been in this particular place since 1992. The community knows us. We don’t even advertise. Down the block is Cohen’s Optical. I have LensCrafters, other private practitioners, Warby Parker opened down the block. It shows that we’ve been here throughout the years, people trust us. We’re here to make a living and be part of the community as well.
I like music and going to concerts, I dabble in guitar. Right now I’m trying to teach myself piano. Growing up, I was heavily involved with theater and music. My only paid acting gig was an extra in Howard Stern’s Private Parts. [Laughs] That was the summer right before I started optometry school.
I found low vision by accident. In 2009, I wanted to switch careers. I went to Florida to get my teaching license, and I needed a job in the 12-month interim for free schooling. I ended up working for Miami Lighthouse for the Blind for a few years providing exams to children in a mobile unit. When the low-vision OD left, I was given a crash course in low vision and took on that role. About 18 months later, my father said he needed me back in New York. I said I want to incorporate low vision into our practice because I love it and found a purpose helping individuals.
We all know the statistics: one in four children needs glasses, 80 percent of learning is visual, 40 percent of children placed in special needs programs or acting out behaviorally need vision correction or vision therapy. That’s why I find it’s so important that we stay engaged with that, and it taught me how to stay engaged with the community. When I came back to New York, I started doing vision screenings for pre-K programs. Currently, I’m trying to work with Caring for the Homeless to ensure homeless children get care because I believe the situation a child is in is not his fault. If we can give kids a chance with clear vision, they can make their way. It became something I became passionate about that I didn’t know existed.
The first thing I ask low vision patients is, “Are you using a smart phone?” That’s the main tool they should be using. The concept of wearables is something that is hands-free. It makes sense that wearables would be in the low vision area. It’s getting better and better. I consult for OrCam Technologies. It’s been great working seeing people using technology to gain more independence or increasing quality of life. OrCam just released the second generation of its device. The device now speaks in multiple languages, of course in Spanish. We’re going to be able to access that technology for a lot of our patients.
We need to teach students not only about medical care but also how to survive and how to get paid for it. It’s something I’m trying to learn on my own. I also think we can’t forget our past. I didn’t like when some schools took out opticianry stuff like the finishing lab and making a pair of eyeglasses. A lot of things are changing, and we’re having to change: online contact lenses, online refractions. We have to concentrate on the benefits to our patients.
My problem is I don’t eat all day. I get so busy. I’m not a sweets person; I’m more savory, so I eat whatever is put in front of me, too. My guilty pleasure is all the bad foods we eat that raise my cholesterol and are bad for my heart.
I regret not understanding while I was in school the whole scope of optometry, of what’s available out there. I saw optometry as a retail giant, and it took me a long time to find my way. I was so busy studying and trying to do well that I didn’t open my eyes to what other opportunities were there. Now I understand that I needed that 17 years practicing to get where I am today to understand myself and my profession better.
Last year, while I was in Santiago, Chile, at a low vision conference, there was an event called blind driving with individuals who are blind. An instructor sat in the passenger seat telling them how to drive, and police shut down the streets. Then it was my turn! They put a blindfold on me and had me drive with an instructor who spoke only Spanish. A woman gets in the backseat to translate, but her translation is not good and I never drove a stick-shift car. She keeps telling me to “hit the punch;” she meant the clutch. I was going slower than the individuals who were there for the event. It was very scary. It was a good lesson of what individuals who are losing their sight are going through.