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Cover Focus | Nov/Dec '18

Long-Awaited Journey

My mom was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child, and, as a result, I became fascinated with the eye and with finding a cure for her condition. She was diagnosed at Stanford University and was followed closely by the local optometrist in our small hometown of Oakdale, California. When I was in high school, I shadowed that optometrist for several years and subsequently decided that I wanted to become an optometrist.

Prior to leaving for optometry school, the dean of the medical school at my university asked me whether I had considered a career in ophthalmology. I had no exposure to an ophthalmologist, so I replied no. I was the first person in my family to even graduate from college, and my only experience was shadowing our local optometrist.

However, this meeting with the dean changed the entire course of my career. He asked me to volunteer with a local ophthalmologist for a day to simply explore this option before making my final decision to attend optometry school. After 1 day of shadowing Frank Mares, MD, of Eye Associates of New Mexico, I was convinced that I wanted to become an ophthalmologist.

I scrambled to put together my medical school application and to take the MCAT. Unfortunately, I was not accepted to medical school. I was devastated by this news, and I did not have a backup plan, as I had given up my spot in optometry school. I was encouraged to finish my biochemistry research that I had started as an undergraduate and to pursue a master’s degree in biochemistry. This was a 2-year program I would complete before reapplying to medical school.

Two years later, I was accepted to medical school and began my long-awaited journey of pursuing a career in ophthalmology. I am now a partner at Eye Associates of New Mexico. I am also very involved with the AAO, where I served as a chair of the Young Ophthalmologist (YO) Committee, was secretary for Online Education (ONE Network and EyeWiki), and served on the American Academy of Ophthalmic Executives board for 4 years. Additionally, 10 years ago, I started a foundation for my mom to help find a cure for retinitis pigmentosa, called The Juliette RP Vision Foundation. I also served in the New Mexico National Guard as a flight surgeon and completed my service as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Robert Melendez, MD, MBA