Excerpted from page 16 of the January/February 2022 edition of AOA Focus.
Michelle Welch, O.D., honored with the 2021 AOA Distinguished Service Award, has found what many working Americans yearn for: professional and personal satisfaction from her career.
How? By providing access to eye care to Native Americans at the Choctaw Nation Health Clinic in Idabel, Oklahoma. Dr. Welch herself is a member of the Cherokee Nation.
You’ve been at the clinic since 2014. What brought you to leave your faculty position after 19 years at Northeastern State University (NSU) Oklahoma College of Optometry?
At NSU, we all were teachers in the college of optometry but we were clinical as well. I loved teaching optometry students. But, while I was there, one of my students graduated, came down here (Idabel, Oklahoma) and got a job with the clinic. He (Josh Golden, O.D.) kept saying, “You know what? You need to come down here.” He kept saying it because he knows me well and knows that my husband and I like being in the woods. At first, I said, “No, I can’t do it.” But then I started thinking that maybe it would be a good place to eventually retire. I came down and interviewed, and now my former student is my boss.
What kind of care do you provide at the clinic and to whom?
The clinic is in southeastern Oklahoma; I’m part of an integrated team providing health care services. Patients must have a CDIB card (certificate of degree of Indian blood issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs) to receive services at the clinic. We serve Native Americans of all tribes. There are four main tribes in the Eastern Oklahoma area: the Choctaws, the Cherokees, the Creeks and the Chickasaws. They divided up after the Trail of Tears [the forced removal and relocation of Native Americans from their homelands in the South in the early 1830s to what is now Oklahoma]. Eye care services are in most Choctaw Nation health clinics—to take eye care to the patients instead of having them drive hours for care.
What do you love about your position at the Idabel clinic?
I love taking care of our patients and providing care close to home, so they don’t have to go far away to ensure their best possible vision and eye health. I love being part of a multidisciplinary health care team where there is mutual respect amongst the health care providers caring for a patient even when they are in different areas of health care practice. I love that the Choctaw Nation is committed to ensuring that we have the most up-to-date equipment and resources to give our patients great care close to home. I feel a great sense of personal and professional fulfillment when I help someone see or feel better about their eye and vision health.
Does being a tribal member of the Cherokee Nation help you in your practice?
When my patients learn I, too, am a tribal member, even though from a different tribe, I think they feel a bit of kindred spirit by having another Native American tribal member helping to take care of them. Also, I was a person with diabetes and high blood pressure. [The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports American Indians and Alaska Natives have “a greater chance of having diabetes than any other U.S. racial group.”] Over the past two years—through diet, exercising and weight loss surgery—I worked to change the path my health was on. I hope that helps them see me as someone who can relate to them and help them understand how those things can affect their vision and eye health.
Do you miss teaching?
I don’t get to teach as much as I used to and people ask, “Don’t you miss it?” Yes, I do. But I still teach courses to doctors of optometry and paraoptometrics. My favorite parts of teaching are seeing someone realize they have learned something new and showing a doctor they already have the knowledge and skills for most of the procedures I teach.