After about 15 years of being part of a male-dominated group practice, Ilana Gelfond-Polnariev, OD, FCOVD, decided she was ready to venture out and open her own practice. She had gained tremendous experience as an associate and even a limited partner, but she didn’t have the same impact—or ultimately equality—in the practice, she says.
Dr. Gelfond-Polnariev graduated from Pennsylvania College of Optometry and completed a residency at State University of New
York (SUNY) College of Optometry in vision therapy and head trauma rehabilitation. She worked hard to establish her reputation as a
vision therapy provider, conducting outreach in the community and attending professional development meetings for educators as well as PTA meetings. She worked to increase the pediatric and vision therapy part of the practice, and when the partners wanted to renegotiate her contract, she says she reluctantly settled.
Five years later, after expanding the vision therapy practice and not feeling fully appreciated, she was ready to propose a plan for an equal partnership, she says. This time, in July 2016, when it came time to renegotiate, she was ready to walk away if she didn’t get the deal she felt was just, she says. “At the partner meeting, I realized that being an equal in the practice was not an option they were willing to entertain. I thought about leaving town—or even leaving New York state—but I didn’t want to walk away from all of the work I had done educating the community,” she says. She began looking for real estate that was outside of the five-mile radius of her noncompete clause.
She found a great space in Staten Island, New York. “It had been an educational facility, which helped inspire the practice name, NYC Pupil, emphasizing the connection between vision and learning,” she says. She began seeing patients in June, and she’s excited that the facility has an elevator and is completely handicapped-accessible, which will allow her to accommodate patients for head trauma therapy and those in wheelchairs.
The ability to offer additional services has her brushing up on her skills, which she’ll do by attending the September meeting of NORA, the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association.
She let her former team know last year as soon as she signed the lease on the new location. She didn’t want them to hear it from anyone else, and she needed to complete the terms of her own contract. Even though a cross-town departure can be emotional, it is important to remain as professional as possible and not burn bridges along the way, she says.
It’s been a busy time as Dr. Gelfond-Polnariev geared up. “I’m juggling between working fulltime, being involved in optometric organizations and also raising two young kids. I teach on Mondays, supervising SUNY College of Optometry students at an external site. I love the teaching component, so I won’t be giving that up.” She’s also been scheduling contractors to work on the new space and learning as she goes. Women owners of other vision therapy practices have been her mentors. “I can’t get over the wonderful responses. They’ve been my source in guiding me in every step, sending me copies of their forms to view and telling me about equipment or practice design,” she says.
For years, Dr. Gelfond-Polnariev was a dreamer. “Every time that I would read a story in Women In Optometry about a woman who started a practice cold, I tucked that away. I am finally that person now. I think there are many women in my position who have been afraid to take the risk.” While she doesn’t expect it to be easy, she’s confident that it will be worth it. “I will still have stress, of course. But it will be positive stress, not negative stress.”