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Madam President

Journey includes raising two sons, running two practices with her husband and thinking continually about the future of the profession

Be careful what you offer. When Dori Carlson, OD, FAAO, and her husband, Mark Helgeson, OD, FAAO, moved to Park River, N.D., in 1990, the couple approached the North Dakota Optometric Association (NDOA) for help in figuring out coding and billing nuances in the state. “The NDOA was so helpful to us, so I said, ‘If we can help, let us know,'” she recalls. The call came—and one thing led to another and another. Now, Dr. Carlson is poised to become the next president of the American Optometric Association (AOA)—and the first woman to hold that position in the organization’s 113 years.

It seems likely that another woman will follow in the not too-distant future. Hilary Hawthorne, OD, of Los Angeles, and Andrea Thau, OD, FAAO, FCOVD, of New York City, are on the board of trustees—from which executive board members are selected. And the way to this top spot was paved by women, including five who have served on the board of trustees, one of whom, Dawn Kaufman, OD, advanced to the executive team position of secretary/treasurer in 1994.

Dr. Carlson’s introduction into the optometric legislative limelight was almost a timid one. Soon after settling in the state, a representative from the NDOA asked if she’d be willing to testify before a state congressional committee. “I said no,” she recalls. “I was so intimidated by public speaking.” But the group convinced her she’d be fine and she nervously read her testimony. Then the questions started, and suddenly Dr. Carlson felt fully at ease. She’s been fairly comfortable in the spotlight since—even when the heat is intense, as it has been regarding certain issues, such as board certification.

Her timing seems ideal, as one of the key issues likely to face her presidency is also one of her passions: children’s vision. If children’s vision exams conducted by an eye care professional, as opposed to a screening in a pediatrician’s office, becomes identified as an essential benefit, then that would mean that every state health insurance exchange would need to include that benefit. “We estimate that if that passes, 11 million children who didn’t have access to care before would,” she says.

In April, Dr. Carlson returned from a two-day, AOA-led School Readiness Summit, an idea she started working on several years ago. It brought together doctors, nurses, educators, public health experts and children’s health advocates to talk about how to improve children’s school readiness. “It was amazing to see the passion that these people—who weren’t optometrists—had in their belief that comprehensive eye exams for school-aged children are a key element of ensuring school readiness.”

She and her husband have been strong advocates of the AOA InfantSEE program since its inception, even though their county reports only about 70 births a year. “My patient population is primarily older, but we made this commitment to see as many children as we could,” she says. Her rural setting, two hours away from Fargo, makes that need even more apparent when she works with patients with untreated amblyopia now facing glaucoma or other eye diseases connected with aging. “They’re facing vision loss, often in their good eye, and it’s frustrating because the amblyopia could have been treated years ago,” she says.

Another initiative of Dr. Carlson’s is her whirlwind 20/20 Tour—visiting 20 optometry schools in the U.S. in 20 months. In May, she completed the ninth one. “We were brainstorming ideas about how to succeed better in transitioning student members to full-fledged members. Sort of as a joke, someone said, ‘Let’s put Dori on the road.’ It seemed like a good idea at the time,” she says, laughing. Despite the grueling pace—as none of the schools are near North Dakota and the window of opportunity is small—she’s enjoying it tremendously. At each school, she has three meetings. Her first audience is with administrators and the second is with the faculty. The third is with all students who are on campus and can come, typically first- through third-year students. “It’s not a lecture as much as it is a motivational talk. I call it Life’s Little Lessons for Optometry. ‘Be the first to say hello’ is one of them,” she says. As the doctor, you’re on stage when you’re with patients. They judge your performance, and one of the ways you can reach out quickly is to be the first to say hello, she tells them. She sprinkles her conversation with anecdotes and stories from her own career. It’s a combination of empowerment—”Ask for a raise when you feel like you’ve earned it”—and general advice—”Leave everything a little better than when you found it.” For students, that applies as readily to the daily attitudes in a first job as it does to patient care.

She also encourages them to apply that attitude to organized optometry. Just as she walks in the paths of those who went before her, she hopes that these students will become leaders in their communities and in the optometric profession. “You don’t have to participate at the level I do,” she says, “but it’s important to participate at some level.” Simply joining the organization at the local, state and national level is the first step.

The organization keeps evolving, she says, even though its mission remains the same—to advocate for the profession of optometry. She recalls serving on the information and technology project team where they discussed how the new concept of email addresses might change the way the organization communicated with its members.

Dr. Carlson and her family have adapted, too, to the frequent demands of travel and time away. Her sons, who were strapped into car seats as infants and driven to NDOA meetings, recognize that their mother is about to put another crack in the glass ceiling. They accompanied her to the 2010 AOA meeting, but that was the first time they’ve been to one. “I don’t have time to be a parent,” she says of much of her travel. But when she can combine her trips with educational side ventures—such as a trip to Gettysburg or the Baltimore Harbor—she will take them along. When she’s away, they get on Skype. “We’ve been having great conversations that way,” she says. And she still sees patients as much as her schedule allows. Dr. Helgeson shoulders the load at the office and at home—a sacrifice on his part that she appreciates enormously. Neither one anticipated the path would lead where it did, although her decision almost 10 years ago to run for a trustee position put her squarely on that route. It’s been a long journey, but she offered her help and the NDOA and then the AOA took her up on it.

To contact Dr. Carlson, email

[email protected].

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