In the years after graduating from Pennsylvania College of Optometry in 2007, Christie M. Person, OD, FAAO, had tried it all, but wanted something different. “I had a lease for a corporate-affiliated office. I worked in private practice. I was an independent contractor for two-and-a-half years,” she says. “I wanted to work with the underserved.” That’s when a colleague and mentor, Susan Primo, OD, MPH, FAAO, advised her to check out an opening for a job in a large public hospital in Atlanta. Currently, Dr. Person works for Grady Health System in Atlanta—spending one day a week at the hospital and splitting the other four days between two different clinics.
The hospital serves a diverse demographic, and each of the clinics has its own distinct patient base. “I enjoy the diversity,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been able to make a mark.” In one clinic, patients speak a range of languages, from Spanish to Bengali. The other is primarily African American patients. In both, many patients have little or no insurance, and they often need help with disease control and management. She sees patients with diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, autoimmune and neurological issues and those who have suffered a stroke. “The clinics are interesting and will keep me on my toes.”
Like many ODs, Dr. Person relishes the opportunity to have a work/life balance in her career. “My day starts at eight and ends at four, and I’m off on weekends,” she says. “I have an 8-year-old daughter, so this has been a dream job for me.”
From her time in optometry school, Dr. Person knew she wanted to work with underserved communities. She has seen some of that in her different practice experiences, but it was often the result of specific outreach to these communities. Her previous work settings all gave her great clinical experience, “but now I feel fulfilled.” She notes that the patients she now works with deal with ocular disease and health access disparity that comes from lack of access to care. “In some cases, to see [a physician] who looks like them helps to let down the walls.”
While she found the job to be a great fit, she felt a bit under the microscope as she was the first and only OD hired by the health system. That initial pressure was “to represent optometry well.” Throughout her five-and-a-half years of practice there, though, she keeps hitting her stride. Now she sees herself representing optometry to the patient.
Finding her footing to get to a career in community health was certainly the road less travelled for Dr. Person. “Community health was not a well-represented option in optometry school,” she says. “Creating a career in community health and geared towards helping the underserved is not generally at the top of the list of options for students,” she says. “I did not know this was out there. It took me a while to break into the arena.” She reflects on the lack of facilities dedicated to community health, as well. “The setting isn’t there. The clinics aren’t there. I looked for seven years and couldn’t find anything until this opening.”
A VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Dr. Person says, “I hope more people will consider community health.” Patients are gratified by the attention and education, and she leaves work each day knowing she has impacted lives positively.
She not only extends that wish to current young ODs and students, but she’s thinking long term. “I talk to young patients about their career goals,” she says. “I’m from a small town in Georgia; I left there for New Orleans, then to PCO. If I can do that from a small town, it’s within reach for them, too.” She is modeling the opportunity for Atlanta’s youngsters, who include her own daughter.
“I’m doing the right thing in the right place,” she adds.