Q&A: Stuart Richer OD, PhD, FAAO Chief of optometry at DVA Medical Center, North Chicago; president of Ocular Nutrition Society

January 23, 2017

Where did you grow up?

New York City in the Bronx. I was born in the mid 1950s a few miles from Yankee Stadium. My dad was a CPA, and my mother was a legal secretary. I had a very fine public education in the New York City school system; at that time, a lot of City College of New York professors ended up as high school teachers. I remember particularly Dr. Troyk, my physics professor. He had a profound effect in encouraging my interest in science. I try to do that with people who are in my charge, whether they’re optometry students or whether they’re residents.

When did you discover optometry as a career?

I originally started out doing a broad liberal arts education at Middlebury College, then I shifted to engineering. I did what was known at the time as photo-science; I studied optics, electrical engineering, and image formation. Somewhere along my fourth year, I had my own eyes examined. I was very impressed by the optometrist, so I applied to optometry school.

Related: Q&A: Quy Nguyen, OD Director of Career Development and Minority Enrichment at SUNY

Why optometric education?

Optometric education is close to my heart because mentors are very important to students. Mentors will challenge students and push them into directions they may not have considered and that are important for the public and for scientific thought and direction. Our students are saddled with tremendous debt, so fewer students are going into advanced study for Masters and PhD degrees which underlie the foundation of our discipline. They are pursuing purely clinical directions, which are important, but they often will not help grow the profession as a whole in an independent fashion. I’m for independent optometry, independent private practice, and optometrists who want to move the profession in a direction that is cooperative with other healthcare professions but independent. 

How did you get interested in aging and nutrition?

I was seeing patients who had macular degeneration whose vision was improving when I placed them on Theragran-M (Bristol-Myers Squibb) vitamins, sometimes a couple of lines over a relatively short period of time. That was just a wonder to me; I couldn’t figure that out. I found that I needed a background in nutritional biochemistry. Today as president of [the Ocular Nutrition Society], we’re setting up a program for optometrists to learn more nutritional biochemistry and receive certification and monetize it in their practices. They get paid for doing nutritional counseling in their practices. I’m coming full circle in my life as far as what was important to me and pass that on to the next generation.

 

Should there be more on nutrition-related disease in optometry school?

Definitely. We’re in a stressed world with a diminishing quality of food. I think it behooves all optometrists to educate themselves on the basics of what’s required for human life and what’s required to sustain both the eyes and the brain. I’ve been trying to bring this home to the students and residents who are under my charge that the human body does require trace minerals, all of the lettered vitamins, three essential fatty acids, and a series of amino acids to function properly. These are not often in adequate supply in the modern diet because of changes in agriculture and sometimes unwanted additions to the food supply. It makes it challenging to maintain good eye and brain health as one ages.

Do you think some optometrists are skeptical or avoid discussing nutrition with their patients?

I don’t think optometrists are skeptical; I think they’re disinterested because they cannot monetize it. There’s an economic disincentive for the average eye practitioner, particularly ophthalmologists, to talk about prevention-it’s unreimbursed. Optometrists spend more time with patients than ophthalmologists-they see the patient year over year, so they can continue the conversation about preventive medicine and nutrition year over year. Optometrists can talk about whether there’s too much sugar, bad fats, or too much processed food with nitrates and nitrites in the diet. They can talk about foods that contain vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids and whether they’re present for eye and brain health. So the optometrist can play a unique role. It’s the rare faculty member at optometry schools who is interested in this area.

Related: Q&A: Nazanin Galehdari, OD Owner of EyeMax EyeCare, Murray, UT

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

Join the Ocular Nutrition Society. Only $100 per year, there’s a wealth of information online, there’s like-minded colleagues, and we provide discounted tuition at two major meetings per year, the American Academy of Optometry, and one in St. Louis. You’ll understand the nutrients that it takes for maintenance and repair. You’ll become, in terms of your own health, less dependent on doctors and pharmaceuticals as you get older, so it will save you money, improve the quality of your life, and help build your profession.

What do you do for downtime?

Organized religion is definitely part of my downtime. At least one day a week, I’m a Sabbath-keeper, so I like to be totally down on my Saturdays to visit with friends and read books of a spiritual nature. I’m pretty much on overdrive the other six days. I don’t have the exercise gene, but I’ve tried to incorporate some exercise into my life. I play piano-once a week, I have a lesson at my house. My piano teacher is a philosophy professor, so we talk philosophy and books at the same time. We spend dinner together, so I have an hour with my own private philosopher piano instructor. I’ve been doing that probably 15 years. I have an ear for music like van Gogh, actually. I’m not that good.

 

Do you have any regrets?

I have absolutely no regrets with any aspect of my life.

What’s something you’d like to change in optometry?

Not have 400 or 500 members of the Ocular Nutrition Society but have 1,000 members. And to have people pursue ocular nutritional biochemistry and preventive medicine with a passion in improving their own health and the health of other people. I’d like to see more people measuring macular pigment. I’d like to see more people expand their interest in optometry beyond eyeglasses and eye optics. We’re working on just a fraction of what our abilities are as optometrists.

Related: Q&A: Justin Kwan, OD, FAAO Assistant professor and chief of cornea and contact lens services, Marshall B. Ketchum University

What’s your guilty pleasure food?

Pizza because I’m gluten intolerant. I do that, and I later regret it.

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

When I was in my early twenties, I got involved with three guys in my optometry class who started a rafting company. I went down the American River with these guys, rushing white water on an unregulated raft, and I almost left my life on the American River. I think it was just divine intervention that I’m here today. I got caught underwater, was driven a hundred feet and was almost got snagged by the brush. Later I found a couple of classmates actually died on that river. I’ve been a risk taker all my life. I like to travel, and I like to do things that other people don’t do.