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Over the decades, the number of graduates participating in residencies has grown. In this Q&A we sit down with Heather McLeod, OD ’06, who serves as ICO's Director of Residency Programs. She provides valuable insights into residency programs, and how they benefit recent graduates. There are numerous reasons to pursue a residency, with the primary one being the opportunity to enhance your knowledge and expertise in the field of optometry.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into optometry? 

I've always liked science, especially biology. I just didn't know what I wanted to do with it as a career. In college, I quickly realized that being in a lab all day was not my cup of tea. 

I discovered optometry through my family optometrist, Susanna Fostiak, OD ’77. Shadowing her made me realize optometry was a wonderful way to use science every day. She was an ICO grad. So, I applied to ICO. It was actually the only optometry school I applied to. 

After graduating, I did a residency in ocular disease at SUNY College of Optometry. Then, I joined the faculty at SUNY. After a few years in New York, my husband proposed, and I returned to Chicago. At ICO, I've worked in primary care, urgent care, and retina clinics. I served as the coordinator of the ocular disease and primary care residency, and then in 2019, I became the Director of Residency Programs.

Why do you think residency is valuable?

Residency made a huge impact on my career, and when I ask others, they all tend to agree. 

Residency allows you to try out new things, advance your clinical skills, and expand your career opportunities. When you take that optional year of advanced training, it opens the door to so many different types of practices. Whether it is in a hospital, academia, a VA, an MD/OD practice, or any tertiary kind of practice, these organizations are looking for residency-trained individuals. Not only that, because you are residency trained, you can easily switch from one type of practice to another. 

Very recently, I was talking to a former faculty member, and she is a perfect example of exactly the types of opportunities that residency opens up. She’s worked at ICO, but now she works at a hospital. She's done private practice. She's done corporate. She's done it all. She was very clear that the reason she’s been able to switch between so many modes of practice is because of her residency. That ICO residency opened the doors to each of these opportunities.

We have a lot of students who choose to stay on to do a residency at ICO, why do you think that is? What do you think draws residents to our clinic? 

We have a really high percentage of ICO students who apply to our ICO on-campus programs as well as our affiliate programs.

Our clinic keeps you on your toes. You never know who will walk in and what might be troubling them. The cases can be quite varied, you could encounter anything from a chemical burn to a retinal detachment. We see a lot of inflammatory diseases. In other words, the things that you read about as being uncommon, you see them not uncommonly at ICO. It is easy for students to say, "You know, I've been here. I've been a student, but I understand there's so much more for me to learn. I know that the concentration of disease just won’t exist in other places as it does at ICO." At ICO, the more you see the more you realize how much more there is to learn.

How do you see optometry changing in the next few years and how do you hope to be a part of this?

The scope of optometry is increasing. More and more people are practicing full-scope optometry, which includes a lot of medical care. As our population ages, as the baby boomers get older, they’ll need more medical care. Our ophthalmologists love to do surgery and want to do surgery. They would rather have us do the general exams. Residency-trained optometrists know when someone needs to be referred immediately and when it can wait. We’re happy to do a lot of the pre- and post-op exams. Ophthalmologists can concentrate on their niche, and we take over the rest. It's a beneficial relationship for both parties.

These days, hospitals don't even consider optometrists who aren't residency trained because they know that residency-trained optometrists can just jump in.

What’s one thing you would like incoming students to know about the field of optometry?

I want them to know that residency can (and should) be an essential part of their optometric journey. As a resident, you're increasing your clinical confidence by seeing all these complex cases. Not only that, residency forces you to say “yes” and try things that you may not have realized you would want to do. You’re expanding your optometric knowledge, but also you’re lecturing, doing research, writing publishable-quality papers, presenting posters. You get to try all these things out, and then maybe, just maybe, you end up saying, "Oh, actually, this is for me.”

My residency is what ultimately led me back to ICO. I love working in academia. Every day is different: one day I could be lecturing, the next, I could be coordinating or teaching in a lab, and then the day after, I'm teaching in clinic. 

It also means I get to be part of the ICO community. I know we say it so much, but ICO really does have this family feel to it, and especially being at ICO as long as I have, having worked with the students and faculty for as long as I have, I've made wonderful relationships here, and I can't imagine not seeing these people every day.

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