How did you become interested in the field of optometry?
Like many optometrists, I started wearing glasses early on, but it wasn't really until I was in college that I started thinking about optometry as a career. I was shadowing an optometrist, and he seemingly had an ideal work-life balance – he found success in his job and had time for his family. Witnessing that and the relationships he had with his long-standing patients, I wanted something similar. There are so many modes of practice in optometry, which is another reason why I decided to go into this field.
What would you like incoming students to know about optometry?
I feel like what most people coming into optometry are exposed to is refraction and perhaps running a private practice. But I think there's something to be said about all the options that optometrists have available to them. The field has developed so much. Especially after residency, there are so many opportunities students can pursue.
For our residency-trained optometrists, you can work in the VA system, at an OD/MD practice, in the military and in education. Optometry isn’t limited to what we were exposed to when we were kids and going to the eye doctor.
As an active duty Navy officer, Dr. Salazar treated all kinds of patients. This has meant that at ICO she also has been able to take on many different roles. She's in clinic, in labs and also participates in contract research.
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. Anytime he talks about the military, he just lights up. His experiences and sea stories motivated me to see how I could make it 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.
As an optometry student, I participated in the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). 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, reimbursement for 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. The scholarship took away that stressor by covering everything.
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 of the following week. It was a quick turnaround with no time to decompress!
Within my first year of practice, I was deployed to Central and South America on a hospital ship called the USNS COMFORT. 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.
Dr. Salazar's first deployment was to Central/South America where she did eye exams and referred patients for surgery. Surgeries were done directly on the ship USNS Comfort.
How has serving in the military changed your perspective?
I'm inherently a very introverted person, and I'm really shy. Even today, I despise having all eyes on me. 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.” And it led me to feel more confident when applying for certain administrative roles at ICO.
In addition to seeing patients and working with students in the lab, I also work in an administrative role as the Specialty Care Educational Coordinator, where I work one-on-one with third- and fourth-year students in specialty clinics to help strengthen their clinical skills. I normally wouldn't have applied for this position, but thanks to the military, I felt more confident taking on the role. I'm so grateful for that because I'm happy with where I am and what I'm doing. I can honestly say I enjoy all the different things 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.
By the time Dr. Salazar completed her active duty component, she was Chief of Optometry for the VA at Lovell Health Care Center. This site is both an externship and residency site for ICO students, and a unique DoD/VA facility (there are only two in the US).
Why might students be interested in choosing the VA when they’re considering externship sites?
It’s crucial for all 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.
I also want to highlight the base where I was stationed, which is just north of Chicago and is 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 (the other is Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, MD). Being a combined DoD/VA facility meant that while I was stationed there, I treated all kinds of patients: recruits, veterans, and active-duty service members as well as their dependents. Students who choose to do their externship there will be exposed to many different patients.
I was able to treat 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. I then transitioned to the Navy Reserves. Now, I'm required to serve one weekend a month and complete a full two weeks of annual training a year. It's an opportunity for me to travel, to branch out and take on new leadership challenges. Because I have so much experience working with so many different patients, I’ve been able to diversify my patient care base here at ICO as well.
Since joining as faculty, I’m largely based in Rosenbloom, but I also see patients throughout the IEI. I'm teaching and doing contract research, both of which are relatively new for me but have been amazing. 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.
Because of her many unique and diverse experiences, Dr. Salazar now wears many hats at ICO. She's in the Rosenbloom Clinic, but also in Cornea and Contact Lens and Primary Care. In addition, she also works with students as the Specialty Care Educational Coordinator.
What's one thing that you would like students to know about ICO?
The support system at ICO is amazing. I'm not from here, nor did I go to school here, and yet, I feel very much at home at ICO. We have support from everywhere. Like I mentioned, I'm in the Reserves, which means I’m required to leave for extended periods of time, sometimes with little notice. My colleagues graciously step in and help cover my clinic shifts and assignments. I really appreciate feeling like I’m part of a team.
And then there’s Chicago. Coming from a non-Chicagoan, I love Chicago. I am raising my kids in Chicago. My husband's also not from here, and we've made Chicago our home.
Last, but not least, 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 love 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. I couldn't ask to be at a better place.