Q&A: Chris Lievens, OD, MS, FAAO-Chief of Internal Clinics at The Eye Center, Southern College of Optometry

October 20, 2017

I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. My dad was a federal government employee and so from the time I was born to the time I graduated high school, it was always in the D.C. area-in fact, I went to high school in Washington, D.C. After I went to optometry school, I went into the Air Force and was stationed in Washington, D.C., so we moved back there.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. My dad was a federal government employee and so from the time I was born to the time I graduated high school, it was always in the D.C. area-in fact, I went to high school in Washington, D.C. After I went to optometry school, I went into the Air Force and was stationed in Washington, D.C., so we moved back there.

How did your Air Force ROTC experience affect your optometric education and expectations?

The high school that I went to was a day school, not a boarding school, but it was a private military high school. At an early age, I had an inkling to join the military, and the offerings of ROTC scholarships for undergrad certainly propelled me in that direction and helped me to afford to go to Tulane University. I was slated to be a weapons officer, or, because I was majoring in math and economics, a buying officer for the Air Force. But I was always interested in eyes, so I asked the Air Force for a sabbatical so I could fund my own way through optometry school with the agreement that I would come back in the Air Force as an optometrist.

Previous Q&A: Q&A: Craig Thomas, OD: Optometrist Dallas, TX

Why academia vs. private practice or military or industry?

My wife is also an optometrist; we graduated from the same optometry school and she was in the Air Force as well. When you have the exact same career and the same service, your options for where you can move around the world are very limited. We knew we weren’t going to be in long term. For the majority of the last few years of Air Force work, I was an associate in a private practice, my wife was an associate in a private practice, and it was one of those life crossroads. We were opting to buy into two different private practices where we would be partners, then this offer came from academia. It was a very tough decision; I don’t think there was a “right” decision. We decided that if we were ever going to experiment as faculty members, it was the prime time in our lives to do that. We took the risk. If it didn’t work out, we would opt for private practice after that. Seventeen years later, it seems to have worked for us.

What three things do you advise optometry students?

Lifelong learning is a phrase we throw out there. The world changes at such a fast pace, eye care is changing, and technology is changing-if we don’t devote time to keeping up, the world is going to pass us by educationally. It’s not easy. We have life challenges, families, PTA meetings, and we’re tired after a long day. But forcing time to pick up a journal or an article to keep learning is really, really important. Number two is to have some outlet. Have other things to free up and expand your mind in a different area. I think that enables us to enjoy life and not just think about work. The last thing is that optometry is a small profession. We are in this together. Sometimes, in some sense we are competitors, but at the end of the day we want each other to do well, we want this profession to do well, and we want out patients to do well. We need collegiality and support from each other to drive this profession forward.

Related: Q&A: Darryl Glover, OD: Cofounder of Defocus Media

Why did you decide to get a PhD, and why in the UK?

I try to look for what’s next, a new challenge. One of the things optometrically I do for fun, and this kind of nerdy, but I like clinical research.  I like exploring a question that needs to be answered and doing my best job to answer it. If I would look for the next chapter in my academic life, I’d like to take on more of that. I would be better armed to with a PhD background. In the United States, the PhD program is very much classroom-based, whereas in the UK it’s more project-based. In order for me to continue my full-time job, the design of the UK program seemed to make more sense. And it just so happened that SCO had been fostering a relationship with an institution in Cambridge in which both institutions were toying with the idea…“Hey, we’d love it if one of your faculty members would do this.” Well, it was the right place, right time for me, and I ended up raising my hand.

 

If you could ask your fellow ODs to do one thing differently, what would that be?

Do something different tomorrow than you’ve done today. It’s very easy to do what’s comfortable and to do what you have always done. But in order to get a different result and propel forward, we have to be able to do things differently. Optometry in all likelihood is going to look very differently in the next five years, let alone the next 20 years. If we’re not agile, adaptable, and looking for how things can change and embrace them rather than bury our heads assuming they’re going to go away, the field is going to pass us by. Adaptability and looking for opportunities to do things differently is the only way I see permanent success in optometry.

What’s something your colleagues don’t know about you?

My wife and I are both foodies. Not dining out per se, but we love to cook. We love to find brand new recipes and creations that we have never made before and pair them with wines. We’re winies and foodies all day long. The contradiction piece is that the other hobby that we have is physical fitness. My wife actually became a certified personal trainer. She took an in-person, full-time course, then took a national test, and she is a trainer on the side. She and I explore physical fitness and nutrition on most days. The other days, we throw it all out the window, cook in butter and enjoy the food and wine. [Laughs]

Related: Q&A: Linda Chous, OD: Chief Eye Care Officer of United Healthcare Vision, Owner of The Glasses Menagerie in Minneapolis

What’s you guilty pleasure food?

Risotto. Risotto is rice and full of starch, cream, and cheese, so it’s full of calories but stock-full of flavor. In order to make a good risotto, you are stirring and stirring and stirring, stirring so much that your hands and arms get tired. We have to trade off because it’s a process meal. I love finding something that’s a half-a-day project from let’s make a plan, shop, unpack, prepare, cook, eat. So something that takes up half a day on a Saturday or Sunday, that’s my glory day. Part two to that is peanut butter. I consumer more peanut butter than most humans consume in a year. Just give me a spoon. I don’t need a cracker or a piece of bread. A spoon, and I’m a happy boy.

What’s something about optometry that you want to change?

I want to make clinician’s job easier and more consistent. I try to look for things doctors don’t agree with, and I don’t mean in way that somebody’s right and somebody’s wrong. I look for things we do but the way we do it, the instrument or grading scale we use, some factor makes us look at the same eye and make a different clinical judgment or interpretation of the exact same finding. I look for opportunities to drive more consistency to make our jobs easier. We cannot operate at the same pace we did. So, we have to see more patients more efficiently and, hopefully, more accurately. One way to do that is to drive consistency in a way that we haven’t seen before.

Related: Q&A: Rohit Sharma, OD: President, Southern Eye Specialists, Atlanta, GA

Do you have any regrets?

Oh sure. I would say personally, not professionally. We’re human. We make wrong choices, and sometimes we have to pick ourselves up and drive in a different direction. For that reason, I’m a born-again Christian. Years ago, when a decision had to be made, I looked at that decision through my own personal filter. Today, I look at that decision through a more spiritual filter, and it helps me make the right decision over and over again. It’s not something that I talk about because I know that we’re sensitive to those kind of issues in the world, but it’s something now I wear on my sleeve because it does drive me as a human being.

What’s the craziest thing you ever did?

Jump out of a plane. It was not part of my military requirements, it was completely for hobby. Back in the day, there was not a lot of safety precautions. This is a prop plane with a strut that connects the wing to the plane and a small step outside the door. This is after four hours of prep work in the field. Fly up in a prop plane, crack open the door, and the instructions are, “Put your feet on that step and hang off the strut. When we give you the thumbs-up, let go and pull your chute.” There’s no way we would do that today. For a moment, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Once that moment ceased, you forget about that, it was very peaceful. But in that moment, wow, is it scary. The reality is the wind is coming so fast, you can’t hang off the strut. As soon as you get your hands on it, the wind blows you off, so I didn’t even see a thumbs-up.

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