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When it comes to ICO faculty, many have deep connections to ICO. Whether they graduated from ICO or did a residency here, many of our faculty knew that they wanted ICO to be part of their future. Then there are those whose path to ICO is more circuitous. Dr. Patricia Salazar’s own journey to ICO involved a career in the military, serving as the Director of the VA portion of a large federal health care center, to serving as a staff optometrist at ICO starting in 2015. It wasn’t until 2020, that she transitioned to the role of Assistant Professor. Here is a quick look at her unique path to ICO and how her time in the military made her into the optometrist she is today.

What would you like incoming students to know about optometry? 

Most people think of optometry as refractions and perhaps running a private practice. But optometrists have so many more options available to them. Especially after residency, there are so many opportunities students can pursue. 

Optometry isn’t limited to what we were exposed to when we were kids and going to the eye doctor. For our residency-trained optometrists, you can work in the VA system, at an OD/MD practice, in the military and in education.

You were an optometrist in the Navy before you joined ICO. Why did you choose to become an optometrist in the military? 

I'm third generation Navy. My dad served for 24 years, and my choice to join the military was heavily influenced by him. His experiences and sea stories motivated me to make the Navy part of my own story. I knew that even if it was just for a few years, I would try it out. Luckily, I ended up getting a scholarship. 

I participated in the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). With this scholarship, after graduation, you join the military as a medical officer and in exchange, they cover most of the fees that you incur as a student including tuition, books and equipment as well as a monthly stipend. For me, it minimized my need to get a job while I was in optometry school and allowed me to focus on becoming the best optometrist I could be.

I received my scholarship partway through the first year. Then, between my first and second years, I did my basic training. That was a six-week period where I did all the didactic work required by the military and got my uniforms. I ended up doing basically everything that I would need so that once I graduated, I could join the active-duty component immediately. I graduated on a Saturday and started work on Tuesday the following week.

Within my first year of practice, I was deployed to Central and South America on a hospital ship. I did eye exams and referred many patients for surgery. Surgeries were done directly on the ship, while I did exams in makeshift exam lanes in elementary schools. It was a unique experience and a lot of work. My days went from 4 AM to 11 PM pretty much every day. 

How has serving in the military changed your perspective? 

I'm inherently a very introverted person. Serving in the Navy forced me out of my comfort zone.  

During my time in the military, I became the officer in charge of several units and held multiple command-level roles. I am now the Director for Administration of a large command. Having leadership opportunities handed to me and in some ways, forced upon me, pushed me to look within myself and say, “Yes, I'm capable of doing this.” 

In addition to seeing patients and working with students in the lab, I also work as the Specialty Care Educational Coordinator. I can honestly say I enjoy everything that I'm doing both in the military and at ICO. 

I have learned to approach any opportunity with an open mind, and it’s something I hope to impart to ICO students as well. Even if it’s something you are not completely comfortable with, you never know how these experiences will change your direction in life. I think I'm a good example of that. If you go back 20 years, I would never have seen myself where I am today, and I think a lot of that has to do with the support system that I have and the opportunities I was given. 

Why might students be interested in choosing the VA when they’re considering externship sites? 

It’s important for students to be well-rounded and to gain experience at various sites. Personally, I spent a lot of time at the VA. I saw and managed patients with a high level of ocular disease. This experience is valuable for every clinician, regardless of the type of practice they go into. 

The base where I was stationed is also an externship (and residency) site for ICO students. The Lovell Federal Health Care Center is a combined Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs facility, which is rare. This meant that while I was stationed there, I treated all kinds of patients: recruits, veterans, active-duty service members as well as their dependents. 

I treated all those patients in my first four years as a practicing optometrist. For me, it was a great way to interact with people from all walks of life very early on in my career. By the end of my four years on active duty, I was the Chief of Optometry for the VA portion of the clinics. Now, I’m a Navy Reservist. I serve one weekend a month and complete two weeks of annual training a year. It's an opportunity for me to travel, to branch out and to take on new leadership challenges. Because I have a lot of experience working with a variety of patients, I’ve been able to diversify my patient base here at ICO as well. 

Since joining as faculty, I’m largely based in Rosenbloom, but I see patients throughout the IEI. I'm teaching and doing contract research, both of which are relatively new to me. I never saw myself doing things like contract research or even teaching my own lab but here I am, and I'm discovering how much I enjoy it.  

What's one thing that you would like students to know about ICO? 

One thing I’d like to highlight is just how much I love working with our patients. I'm in the Rosenbloom clinic where there's a large geriatric population. Many of our patients also served in the military, and it really helps me build rapport with them. The patients make our clinic, and I so enjoy helping them. I've seen patients come from all areas of the state and across the border to see us at ICO, and it gives me such pride knowing that we are reaching a wide variety of patients. I love this place and I love being associated with such a positive experience for so many people. 

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