OD Q&A: Janice M. Jurkus, OD, MBA, FAAO, Professor, Director of Residency Programs, Illinois College of Optometry

January 21, 2014

It took me three visits to my optometrist’s office to learn how to put contact lenses on and take them off. They were so patient with me. The optometrist, Dr. Tom Sekey, said, “So, you want a job here? You can answer the phone.” I got to see what he was doing, and it was so cool because it was really wonderful to be able to make people see. So, I decided to be an optometrist.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Cudahy, WI. It’s a suburb of Milwaukee, and my 97-year-old mom still lives there. Now I live in Chicago. I’m looking out my window, and it’s snowing.

Apart from sunny, tropical Chicago, what is your favorite place?

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. My very best friend lives there.

Tell me about the frog that changed your career choice.

[Laughs] When I was in high school, my father was one of the very first people in the state of Wisconsin to have open heart surgery. At that point I decided, “I’m going to become a heart surgeon.” And then I took my first biology class and had to cut open a live frog. Maybe not! Let’s go into some profession that doesn’t involve blood.

You became interested in optometry when you were in high school getting contact lenses.

It took me three visits to my optometrist’s office to learn how to put contact lenses on and take them off. They were so patient with me. The optometrist, Dr. Tom Sekey, said, “So, you want a job here? You can answer the phone.” I got to see what he was doing, and it was so cool because it was really wonderful to be able to make people see. So, I decided to be an optometrist. Dr. Sekey was very encouraging. I was incredibly fortunate that both my parents, who I have to give huge credit to, and Dr. Sekey, never told me I couldn’t­ do something. If I said, “I want to try this,” they said, “Okay, go do it.” The same thing happened when I said, “I want to be an optometrist.”  They said, “Here’s all the schools, go apply to them. Find out what you need to do and do it.”

What went through your mind when you first saw that all of your optometry classmates were men?

[Laughs] I remember vividly walking into the classroom and looking around, thinking, “What a backward school this is that they’re segregating men and women in to different classrooms.” I walked into the dean’s office and said, “Where’s the women’s classroom?” And the dean looked at me and said, “What?” I said, “There’s only men in that room.” He said, “Well, that’s because you’re the only woman.” And I’m going -You gotta be kidding!” So, I walked back and sat down.

What was the most daunting part of your education experience? Were there any moments when you felt like quitting?

I had to be better than everyone else because everyone knew my grades. I was told at the time that I was taking the place of a man who got drafted and had to go to Vietnam, so I better be good at what I do because I could be killing someone. It was a challenge. Although I was the only woman in my class, a very lovely young woman by the name of Dr. Vanessa Pagan was in the year ahead of me. The two of us bonded. She had been there by herself the year before so she knew what it was like. The two of us helped each other tremendously.

What was your first year like out of school as an optometrist?

My first job in the Chicago area was working with an OD/MD practice, and my first patient  had a gun shot wound to the eye. And it was at the hospital that Richard Speck, back in the 60s, had murdered a number of nurses and kind of a rough part of town. And I just sort of sat back and said, “You know, I don’t think this is what I want to do. I want to make people see. So, I stopped back at ICO to see if there were any leads I could get and they said, “Why don’t you teach here for a year to figure out what you want to do in life.”

You drifted into teaching. What kept you there, and why do you still enjoy it?

It is so much fun to change people’s lives. Right now I’m the director of the residency program. To be able to work with these incredibly smart and very ambitious residents and watch them excel in their different areas is like, “Wow! I’m really making a difference in somebody’s life!” And that’s fun.

How did the TV show come to happen?

It was on a local cable, public access station in Chicago called CAN-TV. My friend Jim McKechnie was doing a show for the Illinois Society for the Prevention of Blindness, and he invited me to come on his show as a guest. I did, and I thought, “Gosh, this is really fun.” So I talked to the producer of CAN-TV and said, “I’d like to propose a talk-show for you.” I talked to a number of ICO faculty members and my students about it, and they thought it was a great idea. We were on for 8 seasons. It was great fun.

You have encouraged networking, mentoring, and leadership development. Why is it particularly important to encourage this among women?

I think it’s important to encourage all optometrists. When I was doing my training, I was one of the guys. I don’t in my own mind necessarily look at optometrists as men and women optometrists-they’re optometrists, period. But, with that said, women sometimes will not be as assertive as their male counterparts will be. There are times when women’s networking is not quite as efficient. To be in a position where I am right now where I know a lot of people, it’s so exciting to introduce someone who needs to know somebody else and put them together and say, “Maybe you two can work out this problem and come up with a solution.”

What is the craziest thing you've ever done?

In the past 10 years or so, I’ve decided to do dangerous stuff. I’ve been parasailing in Cabo San Lucas, I’ve been zip-lining in Costa Rica and I went zorbing in New Zealand. Zorbing is most excellent! There is this 14 foot Plexiglas ball, they put a little water in it and you jump in the center of it, they zip you in and roll you down a hill.  You have no control of anything. You just float. Of course, I did the zigzag hill instead of the straight-down hill because that was more fun.

What would you change if you had it to do it over?

Learn to play golf. A lot of camaraderie, a lot of friendships, and a lot of getting to know people can happen on the golf course. Back in the day when many companies would offer golf sponsorships, not knowing how to golf didn’t fit me in with the people, especially being the only woman around. So while I went shopping, those guys went golfing, and they had something to talk about afterwards.

What's one piece of advice you'd like to pass on to women entering optometry?

Oh, believe in yourself. You’re better than you think you are. And…make sure you have fun every single day. Enjoy what you do, you make people see. There’s just nothing better than that.ODT