Scleral contact lenses, academia and mentoring students, sushi, skydiving

January 15, 2020

Meet Pam Satjawatcharaphong, OD, FAAO, FSLS, Assistant clinical professor at UC Berkeley School of Optometry and President of Scleral Lens Education Society.

Meet Pam Satjawatcharaphong, OD, FAAO, FSLS, Assistant clinical professor at UC Berkeley School of Optometry and President of Scleral Lens Education Society.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in San Francisco and grew up in San Mateo, CA. My mom is a recently retired pharmacist. My dad was a pharmaceutical researcher. I joke that he made the drugs, and she sold them. [Laughs] Most of my family is back in Thailand.

Why specialty and scleral lenses?
When I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I worked at a practice and the doctor specialized in contact lenses so it piqued my interest early. As I went through school I had a good experience with mentors in contact lenses. I like that contact lenses is sort of a niche that doesn’t overlap with ophthalmology. Scleral lenses have grown a lot in the last decade-we are fitting more of them. Right then and there, you can make a difference very quickly for a patient. Many are grateful for not having to resort to surgery to see better.

How did you benefit from a residency?
The type of lenses we fit in residency you typically don’t get a whole lot of it in school. Doing a residency gives you the high volume of patients that are required to get very skilled at working with these lenses. My residency got me solidified in wanting to teach. I really liked teaching while I was in residency, and the opportunity came up to teach back at Berkeley. So that’s how I ended up here.

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Why academia?
I love the interesting cases we get at a school. We often are referral based. A lot people in the community will send a case to us that may be too complicated for them. We get to see interesting things and are able to help patients who come to us as the last resort. That is a lot of fun, and it is really rewarding. I mentor our cornea and contact lens resident at Berkeley, so we are the ones who get to see those patients.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I have had the benefit of working with a wide range of students: a second-year contact lens course, third year in primary care optometry, fourth year in advance contact lens, and then I work with the residents. I get repeat students in various years, so it is fun to watch them grow. Students are excited about learning things. It makes it hard to be a complacent doctor because you are always learning about the latest and greatest, the students are excited about it, and they talk to you about it. It helps stir your intellectual curiosity and keeps it there.

What three important principles do you follow when mentoring OD students?
The chief mentor actually refers to the resident. But when I talk to students or residents, I really encourage them to be active learners, to not just go with the flow. I tell them, “If you go back and review what you have learned, it will stick with you longer than if you just go through the motions.” Part of it is also trying to be a good role model. I want to make sure that the way I communicate with patients, how they see me communicate, and give consultations to patients is something that they would want to bring into their own practice. Even if you are in a busy private practice, figuring out ways to really connect with those patients is important, and I hope they’re learning that.

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What's something your colleagues don't know about you?
I didn’t know what major or what profession I wanted. I leaned toward health care and after exploring the various types, I landed in optometry from our pre-optometry group on campus. I wanted to take a gap year before I made my final decision, much to my mother’s dismay. I arranged to go to Thailand, and I was going to work in eye hospitals as a volunteer. I got there thinking I am going to see optometrists and ophthalmologists. Optometry didn’t really exist in Thailand at the time. What I found were only ophthalmologists. These are government hospitals, and people were being bussed in from rural areas. Like, hundreds and hundreds of people taking the whole day off to be seen for 5 minutes. They are very quick exams, and patients are waiting all day. Doctors were doing anything from refraction to contact lens checks, but then they also did surgery. That made a big impression on me. I thought this could be so much more efficient if primary eye care was built into this medical model. That is what solidified my desire to join a primary eyecare field like optometry back here in the States.

What's your guilty pleasure food?
Sushi. I love Japanese food so much. I took a three and half week trip to Japan a couple of years  ago and it was one of the most fun trips I’ve ever had.. I like going to get nigiri, which is fish on rice prepared by the chef. They call it omakase style where it is the chef’s choice based on whatever is freshest or best to be served that day.

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What do you love most about what you do?
With specialty contact lenses, the most common condition is keratoconus. Those tend to be patients in their teens to twenties. Not having clear vision at that age can really impact them. Being able to put lenses on in office and all of a sudden they get to see what they haven’t seen in a long time is really rewarding. I had a young lady come in; she had never worn contact lenses before, her mom has keratoconus and she has it as well. It was a challenge to get lenses on her. But once we got them on, she was like, “Oh my gosh, Mom, I can see your face again.” I know that sounds a little cheesy, but it really made my day.

What is your biggest frustration with optometry?
Our limitations with what we are taught and what we can actually do. We teach our students the widest scope that we can-anything that they could potentially do if our scope expands. Being a legislated profession is frustrating. I find that in my specialty I don’t run into it as much as somebody who specialized in ocular disease where we overlap more with ophthalmology. My hope is that we can be more collaborative down the road and there will be less pushback for things that we can help with to lessen the burden of health care overall by being primary healthcare providers in general. And being more acknowledged and respected for what our education and our skills. Things are always changing; I think they are changing for the better from what I can tell. I’m hoping for a more collaborative feel throughout all eye care.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Oh, I’ll still be at the school. [Laughs] As long as they’ll have me. I’m a career academic. I see myself in the shoes of one of those people who mentor younger academics just starting out, just like my mentors do for me now. I hope to pay it forward for new people.

What's the craziest thing you've ever done?
I decided a couple of years ago I was going to go skydiving. They joke around with you to make you feel more comfortable. A guy says, “Are you so-and-so’s friend? Just want to let you know she’s in the ICU. She’s fine.” We look at each other, and he’s like, “Just kidding!” As we walk out to the airfield the owner says, “We can’t take off. There was a plane crash.” The guys behind us go, “He’s just messing with you.” The owner says, “Seriously, there was a plane crash.” He points in the distance, and we see smoke. So, we were grounded. We had a flight home that evening. I get a text message from the owner later saying they were up and running again if we wanted to jump. Our flight was delayed three hours, so we caught the last jump of the day. Statistically what are the chances for two plane crashes in the same place on the same day?
 

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