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November 6, 2013

Q&A: Dr. Jillia Bird, 2013 SUNY Optometry Alumna of the Year

The SUNY College of Optometry Alumni Association held its annual alumni reunion reception as part of Envision New York at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in Times Square the evening of October 19. This year the Alumni Association honored the classes of 1973, 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008, and it presented 1989 graduate, Dr. Jillia Bird, with the 2013 Alumna of the Year Award. More than 130 people were in attendence at the reception and special recognition was given to Dr. Julia Appel for her service as immediate past president of the Alumni Association and to Dr. Denise Whittam, the Association's new president. The 2012 Alumnus of the Year, Dr. Richard Madonna, joined the others in recognizing Dr. Bird.  

Dr. Bird, who is from the Caribbean island of Antigua, is extremely active in the Caribbean’s glaucoma awareness movement. Earlier this year Dr. Bird was named president of the World Glaucoma Patient Association and received the World Council of Optometry’s International Optometrist of the Year award in Malaga, Spain. She is also a board member of The Glaucoma Foundation in New York and Caribbean coordinator for the World Glaucoma Week Committee.

We asked Dr. Bird of few questions about her career, her work on glaucoma and her view on the future of optometry. Read the Q&A here:

Dr. Bird with Associate Director of Alumni Affairs Mr. Francisco Lomparte

Dr. Bird, first of all, congratulations on being honored as "International Optometrists of the Year" by the World Council of Optometry, as well as "Alumna of the Year" by SUNY Optometry, it's been a great year for you! Can you start by telling us how you decided to study optometry and how you ended up coming to SUNY to study?

I stumbled upon optometry not truly by choice but in an interesting way. I had done an undergraduate degree at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica with a double major in Chemistry and Applied Chemistry and my first job was as a trainee sugar chemist at Antigua's lone sugar factory. After going for months of training on a Guyana sugar estate, the local industry failed financially and I had to decide on a new career path. After turning down a medical school place some years earlier I applied to four allied health disciplines and vowed that I'd pursue the first one that accepted me. Out of optometry, podiatry, pharmacy and pharmacology, optometry won out. Why SUNY? Well New York was comfortable for me since I had the most friends and family living there at the time, it was the only optometry school that I applied to.


You're extremely active in creating awareness about glaucoma in your native Caribbean. How did you become so passionate about this issue?

SUNY Optometry also played a huge part in developing my interest in glaucoma and raising its awareness. After an epidemiology lecture in my fourth year by Dr. Cristina Leske of SUNY Stony Brook describing her imminent Barbados Eye Study, I walked up to her and asked to work with her and she hired me even before graduation. She then sent me and my young family to Barbados where I was to see more open angle glaucoma than I ever knew existed. My passion to educate patients about the silent nature of the disease grew from there and was fueled by my mother's dilemma when I returned home to Antigua two years later to find her misdiagnosed and losing her sight from open angle glaucoma.


What do you feel are the biggest challenges that optometrists and other health professionals face in dealing with glaucoma and raising awareness about it?

Several SUNY Optometry alumni classes were honored at this year's reception

The foremost challenge is the silent nature of the disease and the lack of awareness of it as an irreversibly blinding group of conditions. Because it involves slow, insidious loss encroaching from the side and affecting central vision late, patients present too late in the disease for effective intervention.

Secondly no single effective screening test has yet been invented so populations can't be screened en masse.

Thirdly and fourthly, the ageing of the world's populations and the increase of NCD's as a result are poised to increase the burden of the disease on our public health systems.


What would you say is the state of the optometric profession in Antigua and throughout the Caribbean?

The future of optometry in the Caribbean is bright with the recent introduction of schools of optometry at two Caribbean universities—the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and the University Of Guyana.

The only stumbling block, aside from fragile economies, lies in archaic legislation that persists in many Caribbean territories, including Antigua, that continue to restrict our scope of practice similar to the conditions that prevailed in the US thirty years ago.


You've accomplished a lot in your career so far, what more would you like to achieve? What advice would you offer to ODs who are just starting out?

Before I retire I'd like to see optometry laws fully revamped so that it can be practiced to its fullest scope in all Caribbean territories and I'd be happy to be a part of the process that brings that to fruition. I hope I live to see the achievement of zero blindness from diseases such as open angle glaucoma... and not just in the Caribbean. I believe this is achievable if the patients are brought fully on board in the management teams and are made team players, allowed to “own” their disease treatment plans and are empowered to lead in the decision making process. This will require greater emphasis on awareness campaigns, patient education, low vision rehabilitation strategies, etc. than presently exists.

My advice to new OD’s: Take business management courses as well as psychology courses early in the game. Believe in empowering your patients as partners and prepare to be amazed. Optometry is a wonderful career that should hold no regrets, only joy. Sight is our most precious sense and optometrists remain the gatekeepers to clear, comfortable vision.