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Q&A: Aaron Tarbett, OD, WG Hefner VA Medical Center, Salisbury, NC


I always had a goal in mind of being an optometrist. Microbiology was an undergraduate major, but I was focused on getting to optometry school as soon as I graduated high school.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up near Akron, OH, in a smaller town called Uniontown. My mom was a secretary, and my father was a manager for a division of aerospace at B.F. Goodrich.

How did you get from microbiology to optometry?

I always had a goal in mind of being an optometrist. Microbiology was an undergraduate major, but I was focused on getting to optometry school as soon as I graduated high school. I knew that’s where I was going to go, and so I focused my curriculum along those lines and microbiology happened to be the major I chose.

How did you become interested in optometry?

My optometrist as a kid. I thought he was fantastic, knowledgeable, a great doctor, great bedside manner, and it seemed like a great profession. I took a liking to it and moved right along.

What drew you to practicing in the military?

When I graduated optometry school, I moved down to Virginia Beach in the Norfolk area. I moved down there without a job, with nowhere to live, and I decided that was the place I wanted to start. I was unemployed only a few months-I called a private practice in Maryland. Then I got to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center because a classmate of mine was stationed there. They were looking to bring on an optometrist to help manage some of the diabetes, diabetic retinopathy, and things like that. They brought me on to manage that.

What were some of the day-to-day battlefield injury cases you treated?

We’ve seen a lot of things that happen. Most of the major stuff is going to be managed by ophthalmology. But as far as optometry goes, the big stuff we would see would be traumatic brain injury (TBI). Of course, we’d see the fallout from globe injuries, whether it be corneal perforations, open globes, things like that. We did have scarred corneas-we do a lot of medical contact lenses to help patients see better following their recovery there.


What was your biggest achievement as chief of optometry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center?

We had the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), and the biggest thing was to kind of seamlessly integrate that transition. That was a big transition, closing Walter Reed and building two new giant military medical centers. We did a lot of work with planning for the clinic and staffing. We also helped implement electronic medical records (EMR) as well as automate the clinic with some of the latest technology. While doing that, we kept caring for the fallen service member.

How has the Military Eye Trauma Treatment Act changed mild TBI and visual dysfunction treatment in VA hospitals?

The biggest thing I know about the Act was the development of the Vision Center of Excellence. The Vision Center of Excellence was with us at Walter Reed, and they were engaged in aligning research and creating a data repository for eye injuries. The Act has made sure that it’s recognized and that information is out there for providers to treat it properly.

Did your research into blast-induced mild TBI find any civilian applications?

We were looking at automated technology to pre-screen new guys before they were exposed to blasts and then do the same tests that we did pre-deployment. Nothing has been implemented as far as I know as a standardized protocol for screening for TBI whether it be on the battlefield or sports-related concussion. TBI is everywhere-you hear it not only with our soldiers returning from the battlefield but with sports-related injury, particularly chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I thing the level of TBI is much greater. I think we’re dealing with a lot of fallout that we hadn’t recognized in the past. As optometrists, everyone has become more aware these days.


What was your biggest challenge as a military OD?

I can’t really put a finger on the biggest challenge. There were challenges day to day with everything from the wounded soldier and family members who come through to all the government training to provide care in the clinic. Having to know all the military terms and everything else that goes along with it. As far as a civilian optometrist in the military, I think you need to be pretty flexible and pretty engaged to keep up with everything because things do change quite a bit. You have to deal with “up tempo,” as they say;  you have to deal with furloughs and things come with lack of government funding. There’s a lot of things that you can’t control. That’s probably the biggest challenge in the military: lack of control.

What was the biggest challenge coming from a civilian practice and joining Walter Reed?

[Laughs] Probably getting all the ranks correct for Navy and Army. Being able to delineate a staff sergeant from a sergeant major. Getting used to the time change, 1500 hours instead of 3 o’clock. Those were the big things in acclimated to the military and not having gone through boot camp for an introduction.

Why should young ODs consider working with patients in the military?

I think the military is fantastic, whether they take a DOD position as a civilian with military patients or they go into the military themselves. I had great colleagues and phenomenal doctors at the military facilities. Plus the most appreciative, polite, respectful patients you’ll ever encounter. And they actually do what you say, which is fantastic. They are used to following orders, being active duty, so they’ll actually follow your recommendations. If not, their commander will lay it on them. I can’t imagine a better place to work.

What was it like as White House optometrist to both the Bush and Obama administrations?

It was pretty stressful I when I first saw those guys. You’d hear his voice on TV, and I’d be waiting in my exam room hearing him come in. Wow, that’s the voice I’ve heard so many times, especially with Bush after 9/11. The initial examinations with them and meeting them was a little nerve-wracking, but we ended up having a great rapport. Taking care of them was really a pleasure.


Was it a relief to leave for your current position?

[Laughs] That’s always it. A civilian in that position, typically held by military, military will change out the position because they have a permanent change of station. Because I was a civilian, I would never really have to leave that position unless they made it change themselves. I always told myself I was never going to stay in there indefinitely, except it’s a great opportunity for another optometrist to be White House optometrist. When I left, it was kind of a relief because not only are you the president’s optometrist, but you’re also everything for the White House, which means all the cabinet members, all the staff, everything else. Any time they have a question, they’re calling you. So, I was on-call quite a bit for those guys. I didn’t have to do a lot of going into the clinic itself, but I fielded a lot of calls that came my way. To finally give that up, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

What do you do for down time?

I have way too many hobbies, actually. I’m always getting yelled at for all the equipment I have around here, whether it be golf equipment, mountain biking, or scuba diving. I like a lot of activities. I play a lot of chess, read a lot books, a lot of different things.

Do you have any regrets?

I think anybody has regrets-you don’t go through life without regrets of certain things. But I can’t think of anything I would necessarily do differently.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

It was leaving optometry school right after, just moving to a place where I didn’t know anybody and being able to see if you can actually make it on your own. So I look back on it and say that was pretty crazy to move down there on a whim, take a chance, and see what became of it.


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