Q&A: Academia, contact lenses, beer, climbing a water tower

September 30, 2019

Meet Edward S. Bennet, OD, MSEd, FSLS, FAAO. 

Meet Edward S. Bennet, OD, MSEd, FSLS, FAAO. 

Where did you grow up? 
Terre Haute, IN. It was more or less the law that when you grew up in Indiana, you go to Indiana University, so I followed the law. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, my dad was a beer distributer. My dad always wanted a doctor in the family. My older brother unfortunately had a congenital heart defect and died suddenly in his junior year of medical school. All that combined for me to look for some medical profession.
Everybody said optometry sounded good, so I went into it as the most naïve person in the world. Two weeks before optometry school began I got an interview with the head of admissions. He had this laugh whenever saw something I didn’t do well in undergrad. My self esteem was somewhere near the core of the earth by the end. So he goes, “Ed, what are you going to do?” I figured this wasn’t going to work out, and I replied, “I don’t know, all I want to do is be an optometrist.” And he looked at me and says, “You will be. Somebody dropped out today, and I’m gong to recommend you take their spot.”

Previously by Vernon Trollinger: Q&A: Optometric physician at McDonald Eye Associates in North West Arkansas

Why contact lenses
So, here I am voted most likely to be a mediocre optometry student [laughs], and I’m a third-year optometry student taking Contact Lens I course. The instructor started going through his hard lens design philosophy. Bells went off, it was just an “ah-ha” moment for me. At the end of the semester, a contact lens research rotation externship started under the guidance of Dr. Irvin Borish. I really wanted that externship.

My contact lens instructor said, “Ed, you have to be in the top 20 percent of your class.” But he knew how much how I loved contact lenses. He bumped somebody and put me in there. That was a tremendous life-changer. I was involved in five clinical studies. I got to look at the first extended-wear lenses before they were FDA approved, the first soft lenses to correct for astigmatism, the first gas-permeable lens which turned out to be very, very important to me because I was given this opportunity. And from that point on I was hooked. That whole year I did research for Dr. Borish and Dr. Sarita Soni, and it ultimately opened the door for a faculty position at IU.

Why stay in academia for 40 years? 
I had looked at a couple of practices when I was a fourth-year optometry student. One was a beautiful contact lens practice in Indianapolis. As I recall, I think they offered maybe $15,000 or $14,000. If they would have offered $17,000, I would be there today. Because of that, I didn’t know what to do the next year. And Dr. Soni whom I worked under arranged for me to have a faculty position at Indiana.
When you’re in academia a while, it’s hard to switch  gears and go half time or full time into a practice. I love teaching, I love students. You lose something when you’re not involved in clinical practice but I did the next best thing. One of my study patients when I was a fourth year student was a second-year student who seemed to be real nice. So I ended up marrying her. She owns a private practice, so I live it out through her.

Related: Q&A: Contact lenses, academia and leadership, and a good sandwich

What’s it like being married to another OD? 
I think it’s great Her specialty isn’t contact lenses but she fits contact lenses and whenever I can help her, I will. To me it’s never been boring, I’m very happy I married an optometrist. A quick story: My administrative position for 20 years was to be in charge of admissions. And I tell the students at orientation every year, “On average, four of you will end up getting married to each other. So you might as well start looking now and get it over with and enjoy the next four years of optometry school.” [Laughs] But it is! Typically, there are two couples that come out of every class.

Why did you get involved with the GPLI?
At a meeting in 1984, Frank Fontanta, a friend of mine from St. Louis, was running around the table at dinner talking to people setting up an organization that was going to be the Gas Permeable Lens Institute and he did later come to me to be in charge of workshops.
In 1987, Carl Moore was taking me to the airport and he goes, “Ed, how would you like to be executive director of the GPLI?”  I said, “Carl, I don’t think I’m qualified to do it.” 
He looked at me and said, “I don’t think you understand. If you don’t take this position, I’m going to drop you off at the side of the highway and you’re going to have to find a ride to the airport.” [Laughs] It’s been the love of my life. My passion is GP lenses and what a perfect match and what a great blessing it’s been for me.

Related: Peroxide lens care effective for GP lens wearers

How did the videos with you dressing up get started? 
I think some of us are just frustrated actors. [Laughs] When you’re in front of a class, and that’s where a lot of it comes from, you don’t want to be boring. I started pre-recording myself dressed up in a wig and an outfit or costume and then I would work it out so that I would indicate to the class, “I’m going to talk to Leonardo Da Vinci now.” Then he pops up, and I’m talking to him. About 10 years ago, I portrayed Donald Trump. Over the course of our dialogue, he fired me as his optometrist. [Laughs] It’s a lot of fun to get the students more engaged and portray different people.

What is your guilty pleasure food? 
It is beer. [Laughs] Which should be no surprise to anybody. I don’t think anyone loves a good pale ale more than I do.

What’s something your colleagues don’t know about you? 
I’ve always been somebody who has been fearful of failure. I always worry about disappointing people. When I made the transition recently to retire to retire from UMSL, there was an incredible amount of relief when I woke up and knew I wasn’t going to be disappointing students, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything happening to a student, or worry about that speech I’m going to give. I think all these years it’s been a tremendous motivator, but at the same time I feel better about not having to worry about as much as I always have.

Related: Q&A: A variety of pets, master’s in nutrition, peanut butter, and jujitsu

What are your retirement plans? 
I’m trying to learn how to play golf. I want to put more time into the GPLI. A journal and the Global Specialty Lens Symposium keep me busy as well. I still think there might be something out there and I don’t know what it is.

What do you see happening to contact lenses in the next 10 years? 
Some of it is exciting because we’re gong to see what happens with drug delivery, accommodative lenses, lenses that  help you monitor diabetes; I think they’ll all be here. On the other side of the coin, we have what’s going on with illegal contact lenses sales and providing lenses that fall outside of these companies’ legal limits.
But I think we have three really good entities that are helping us and that’s why I think we’re going to be OK. Clarke Newman, legislative chair of the AOA, and Jeff Sonsino, who are the brightest names in the profession not named Donald Korb, are working hard legislatively.
We have the AOA; anybody who is not an AOA member is freeloading off the efforts of those who are. And we are in a position with better lenses coming out-scerals and myopia control lenses. Those are not easy lenses for a third party entity to provide. So, I see a good future for contact lenses.

Related: Q&A: Sharing space with another OD, ODs on the front line of primary care, and Motorcycle Weekend

What has been the biggest change in optometry during your career?
Medical practice. I was fortunate when I was a student at Indiana University that we could prescribe therapeutic drugs. We’ve seen that continue not only in being able to treat more but also from the standpoint of instrumentation. The ability to monitor the eye for glaucoma at its earliest stages, macular degeneration, just the types of equipment that we have today to help us has been wonderful.

How should optometry move forward?
We are in position of strength now. We have grassroots support in every state. We have optometrists who are legislators. Our state organizations are very strong. ODs are the primary entry point to eye care. Yes, we have concerns about online eye exams, online refractions, illegal contact lens sales, and so forth. But I think we will prevail in the years ahead. I predict a good future for optometry. It may be different, but somebody has to fit specialty contact lenses, provide eye care, and diagnose and treat eye disease.

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done? 
[Laughs] When I was growing up, I was like a lot of young people, no fear of heights. In high school one summer, every night three of us climbed all the way up to the top of a water tower in our community. Never got caught. I don’t know how high it was, but there was a ledge about 10 or 15 feet from the top and we would sit there and dangle our legs every night. One day, we decided we were going to go to the top.
The top of the water tower is round but there was a ladder attached to it. So we’re climbing up to the top. One of the three of us almost missed the swinging ladder to get us back to the ledge-we almost lost him. I look back at that, and you couldn’t pay me enough to do that today. No way. [Laughs]

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