Justin Schweitzer, OD, FAAO, discusses practicing optometry in North Dakota and conquering the 200-mile Ragnar Relay in the latest Optometry Times Q&A.
I grew up in Jamestown, ND, and spent the majority of my early years there. I left Jamestown to attend optometry school in Oregon; that’s the first time I left my hometown. My dad was the administrator at North Dakota State Hospital, and my mom was a physical therapist. My childhood optometrist influenced me as well. I had a very myopic prescription. I spent some time with him through my high school years and then spent time shadowing him in college as well, and that’s really what piqued my interest in pursuing optometry.
I started out of optometry school in private practice and in private practice, there’s a variety of things we see. We’re not only fitting contact lenses and glasses, but we’re getting patients who walk in due to corneal ulcers, conjunctivitis, whatever it may be. So, I began to enjoy the ocular disease side of things and found out after four or five years in private practice that I wanted to pursue more the surgical side of how an optometrist can contribute and work closer with ophthalmology. An opportunity opened itself at Vance Thompson Vision, and I jumped at it. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life from a career standpoint.
The biggest thing is our patients travel from rural areas. A lot of our patients are traveling 200, 300 miles to see us. That can be a challenge when you’re dealing with ocular disease, especially when you have a patient who you need to see frequently. A bacterial corneal ulcer you want to see in the initial phase once a week. And surgical care, as well. They need frequent follow-ups after surgeries, whether it’s cataract surgery, full-thickness corneal transplants, glaucoma surgery. In a metropolitan area, you’re attracting patients from a much closer radius than what we see.
Australian licorice. Can’t stay away from it. I don’t eat sweets, never have, but that is something I cannot stay away from. It’s so thick, the flavor of it is much thicker. Wiley Wallaby Australian Style gourmet licorice, that stuff is my weakness.
My team knows I’m one of the most competitive people, and I’m competitive in many different ways. I still do a lot of endurance running and triathlons and things like that and that’s to make sure I’m not a bearcat at work all the time because I need to get that competitive urge out of me.
I think it’s already happening to a degree, and I think everyone is making an effort to make it happen. A lot of integrated meeting are popping up. That’s so important because we’re able to share ideas amongst each other and maybe squash out any myths or perceptions that are inaccurate. Try to get more attendees on both sides so it’s not strictly 80 percent ophthalmology, 20 percent optometry. If we can get it to be more 50/50, that’s one way we can work more closely because sharing ideas is the way to get that moving forward. I don’t know the percentage, but there’s more and more optometry working with ophthalmology within clinical practice than ever before from what I understand. I think that’s a positive showing that things are moving forward with collaboration between the two.
When I joined Vance Thompson Vision, I wanted to get a group of optometrists together who were interested in research, interested in integrated care, and interested in educating our colleagues who had a passion for providing lectures and articles and doing research. I reached out to colleagues who gave me ideas about other colleagues they thought would be good for the idea, and it spiraled from there. A group of 18 of us came together and have been together for a little over two years, and we share ideas, have an annual meeting, and talk about ways we can continue to move our profession forward. We do it through continuing education lectures that a lot of us provide, writing articles, doing research, and collaborating together.
One reason it’s important is to make sure that we continue to have our voice talking about collaboration between optometry and ophthalmology. One of our mission statements is the medical model. A lot of us work in practices that are medically oriented, and we have an opportunity to speak about that. A lot of our members are speaking at large national optometry meetings, so they have a voice to talk about the medical model, which I think is so important in optometry, and speak about collaboration. A lot of our members are future leaders of optometry. They are passionate about where the profession is moving, and they want to be at the forefront of it and the forefront of technology. Although it’s a small group right now, I think it’s a motivated group that can continue to move our profession forward.
It is not easy. But when you’re passionate about something-I’m passionate about my family and my profession-you learn to prioritize and balance. I use early mornings to get some work done. I do my clinic day, and I try to reserve evenings after work to spend with my family. So, I prioritize times throughout the day when I’m going to do work and I prioritize times when I’m going to spend time with my family. I feel like if I’m organized in that way, I’ll do it. If I don’t prioritize and don’t have a set schedule, one or the other is going to suffer, and to me that’s just not acceptable. It’s hard for me to say “no” to things. It might take me getting up an hour earlier, it may take me staying up an hour later at night when the family’s in bed. Sometimes, it’s just that sacrifice of a little bit of sleep.
One regret looking back is when I was finishing up optometry school, trying to make a decision on whether or not I should go right into private practice or do a residency right out of school. I look back now and wish I would have done a residency then. At the time, you don’t know exactly what your passion is-I knew it was optometry, but I didn’t know it was ocular disease. I think I would have found out that this is what I love to do. I just didn’t know it then. I think an ocular disease residency would have shown it to me immediately. It took me being in private practice to show me.
I love our profession. Nothing comes to mind. I mean, I think there are so many different avenues you can take in this profession, whether you want to be on the commercial side, you want to be in industry, you want to be in an OD/MD integrated care practice, or you want to be in private practice. I’m proud of our profession because we’re continuing to move forward whether it’s at the national level or the regional or state levels. So, I’m not answering your question the way you wanted [laughs], but I don’t have a lot of things I would change right now. I like our profession, I’m proud of it. It gives opportunities to people in different ways, and students coming out can do whatever they want to do in a practice setting they want to be in.
Ugh, gosh. I’m not a crazy guy. I don’t do crazy things! [Laughs] It’s probably crazy. I’m a distance runner, so I did a 200-mile Ragnar Relay with a six-person team instead of a 12-person team. Instead of doing it to enjoy ourselves, we wanted to race it-and we did win. I wound up doing about 36 miles within a 24-hour period with zero rest. We did the Great River Ragnar Relay in Minneapolis. My first leg was 16 miles, then five runners went, then I did 11 miles, then five runners went, and then I did 13 more miles. The crazy part about it is you didn’t sleep, and it was 200 miles overnight. We raced it, so for me I was running a six-minute pace per mile for each one of those miles. It wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s go out for an easy walk or jog,” it was go hard the whole time.