Article Date: 3/1/2004

If I Had To Do It Over
From Carbide Lamp To Slit Lamp
A former coal miner, this O.D. says avoid tunnel vision in your career.
BY ERNIE BOWLING, O.D., Summerville, Ga.

I arrived in optometry later than most, after working for 10 years as an itinerant coal miner like my father before me. Coal mining is a tough way to make a living -- dark, dirty, rough and dangerous. I finally wised up and went back to school.

Now, 13 years after graduating from the UAB School of Optometry, I can reflect on my optometric career. While I have some regrets, my worst day as an optometrist is a thousand times better than my best day as a coal miner.

However, hindsight being 20/20, I'll admit I'd do some things differently.


First, I would have done a residency. A residency opens doors for you that otherwise may remain closed. Teaching, for one -- I've always wanted to teach.

I've overcompensated in a lot of areas, trying to make up for my lack of residency training. Call it "residency envy."


Beyond a residency, I'd recommend a slightly different approach from the one I took in choosing a practice location. Choose where you'd like to live first, then look for a practice opportunity there.

I searched for a practice without much consideration to the area. I've been here 12 years now, yet I still don't call this place home. Remember, in most cases you're going to live where you work. Make sure it's a good fit in every way.


A lot of folks will recommend that you learn the business side of optometry. I'd add: Particularly the optical side. This isn't stressed as much as it should be in optometry schools; after all, their job is to give you the requisite information to pass the board exams so you can obtain a license and earn a living. This doesn't leave much spare time in the curriculum.

Trust me, in private practice you'll make most of your income from selling eyeglasses and contact lenses. I've tried for years to increase my revenue from the medical aspect of eye care. Practicing in a rural area, I treat a lot of pathology. But even though I can slay a variety of ocular diseases, I know at the end of the day, my patients judge my competency by how well they see through their eyewear.

And even though eyewear may represent 50% of your income, it can account for 100% of your headaches. I've seen sweet, little old ladies who initially reminded me of my grandmother turn into foul-mouthed creatures who'd make the crustiest sailor blush because they didn't like their glasses.

You'll learn to deal with these situations because the bottom line is that you're able to care for the patients who walk through your door. Always remember, they don't have to be there. For a myriad of reasons, or sometimes none at all, they chose you. That's a great compliment, one you should always remember.


Treat each patient as you would want to be treated. As an O.D. once told me: "Just take care of your patients, and they'll take care of you."

A 1990 graduate of UAB School of Optometry, Dr. Bowling is optometric editor of the Internet newsletters "Comprehensive Optometry" and "Diagnostic Digest."



Optometric Management, Issue: March 2004