During National Mentoring Month, doctors of optometry pay it forward

January 25, 2017
Positive mentoring relationships can contribute to aspiring doctors’ success.

In the eye clinic at the Family Care Health Center in south St. Louis, two aspiring doctors of optometry squeeze their chairs up close to the desk in the small office of Erin Brooks, O.D.

The three chat about what the optometry students learned from their patient interviews and the slit lamps in each examination room. They ask questions, and Dr. Brooks answers them, though sometimes with questions of her own—better for them to reason through it themselves, says Dr. Brooks, mentor and assistant clinical professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Optometry.  

January is National Mentoring Month, but counseling students is not restricted to an observance.  

"Every time I mentor, my goal is to provide my students with the tools they need to be successful when they graduate," Dr. Brooks says.  

Remembering their mentors

For Weslie Hamada, O.D., associate director of professional affairs, North America, Johnson & Johnson Vision Care Inc., that mentor is Harue Marsden, O.D., professor and associate dean of clinical education at Marshall B. Ketchum University, Southern California College of Optometry (SCCO). Dr. Marsden was perhaps an unwitting mentor. Dr. Hamada took a contact lens course with Dr. Marsden before graduating from SCCO in 2001.

"From day one of optometry school to being involved in our respective state associations and as AOA committee volunteers now, she has been a wealth of clinical and political knowledge that I have always admired. Her dedication and love for the profession continues to inspire me to think about always doing more," says Dr. Hamada.

Clifford Scott, O.D., president of the Boston-based New England College of Optometry (NECO), says he found a mentor in Paul White, O.D., now an adjunct professor of optometry at NECO. Dr. White made him a better doctor, Dr. Scott says. "I worked part time there as a contact lens clinical and lab instructor," Dr. Scott recalls. "Dr. White, then head of contact lens services, took me under his wing and, with guidance, assigned every teaching task in the department to me. It forced me to become proficient in all facets of rigid and soft contact lens fitting. "That experience gave me the knowledge and confidence to lecture to professional audiences across the U.S. and in other countries," he says. "Although we have both moved on to other responsibilities, we maintain a close professional and personal relationship."

Paying it forward

Cyndie Baker, O.D., who practices in Denham, Louisiana, has had a number of mentors. Dr. Baker noted such trailblazers as AOA President Andrea P. Thau, O.D., and Wendy Waguespack, O.D., who practices in Baton Rouge, where Dr. Baker did an externship. "But the one person who stands out above all is Dr. James Sandefur (executive director of the Optometry Association of Louisiana)," Dr. Baker added. "He has always encouraged all of us to join, participate, donate and work hard to advance and preserve our profession. He is the epitome of the definition of mentor."

Dr. Thau's mentorship also was noted by Kelly Voltz, a fourth-year student at State University of New York (SUNY) College of Optometry. Dr. Thau is a SUNY grad as well.  

"All optometrists are very busy people," Voltz says. "It means a lot to a student when a well-versed doctor reaches out to you and sets aside time from her busy schedule to help her mentee become more knowledgeable and see her full potential as a future OD." Having been mentored, the doctors often return the favor. All noted that they do a fair share of mentoring today, whether it's to aspiring doctors, fellow faculty or staff. Says Dr. Scott: "We all have the responsibility to help advance the profession by making sure the next generation of optometrists is not only well-educated, but also compassionate. Having a role model helps them shape their values as well as provides a professional network for them to develop other relationships."

Home-grown mentors

Karla Zadnik, O.D., Ph.D, is dean of The Ohio State University (OSU) College of Optometry. Dr. Zadnik has been on the receiving—and giving end—of mentoring.

In fact, she teaches mentoring to faculty and postdoctoral and graduate students at OSU and an affiliated children's hospital. The OSU College of Optometry plans to launch in 2018 a formal mentoring program, which will connect alums and current students, says Jennifer Bennett, the optometry school's director of student affairs. The new program will formalize what happens informally in many cases, except mentors will be trained and intentional outcomes set.

"Mentoring can be taught," Dr. Zadnik says. She listed characteristics of successful mentoring relationships.

Among them were:

  • Excellent and tailored communication—both listening and talking.
  • Mutual agreement on expectations by the mentor and the mentee, perhaps including a detailed, written mentoring "compact."
  • Assessing the various areas that need mentoring. Recognizing how the relationship should evolve as the mentee gradually starts down the road to independence from the mentor.

Communication is key. That's why Dr. Brooks joined the River City Toastmasters Club in St. Louis.

"One role in a Toastmaster meeting is evaluator," she says. "An evaluator listens to another member's speech during the meeting and then presents that evaluation in front of the whole club. I believe these skills keep me from being overly critical of students and allow me to present correction in a more kind and friendly way."

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