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Optometry Against the Odds

Despite being told not to pursue her dreams, Wendy Saw pushed through many barriers to become an optometrist.

When I was in high school, my mission was to study hard to get a job where I no longer had to worry about living under the poverty line – and so I studied at least eight hours every day.

My optometrist told me not to pursue an optometry career, because she found it boring and back aching. In year 12, my morning roll call teacher also discouraged me saying, “Optometry is very hard to get into” and “You think you’re smarter than you actually are”. I felt demoralised, but I persisted. I stuck to optometry as my top preference because it combined both my love of science and the opportunity to use my language skills.

Professionally, I felt I made a real difference to the people who needed care the most

At University, I studied even harder, graduating with First Class Honours. By that time, I’d set my sights on becoming a lecturer – I had dreams of changing the face of optometry in Asia – so I graduated with both research and corporate jobs. Research was my pathway to an academic career, and I was going to use corporate clinical optometry to finance it.

The reality of my plan hit me hard. Research it turned out, was not for me – something that was difficult to tell my favourite professor at University. Corporate practice, however was – it was more dynamic and challenging than I’d expected. I enjoyed the direct interaction and difference I could make.

Of course corporate practice came with its challenges. I was a fresh faced graduate working with no mentor in the practice to guide me, and I felt the pressure of making clinical decisions alone. I would often cry after work. I felt I wasn’t good enough when I ran late or booked too many reviews. I started to worry that maybe my roll call teacher was right. I considered quitting optometry at the end of my first year.

Despite feeling depressed about all these initial challenges, I picked myself back up and decided to start again – this time in the country. To overcome my fear of moving to a town where I knew no one, I became a workaholic, working six and a half days a week and sometimes eight days in a row. I felt privileged to be in a position where people trusted me with their sight, and I was determined and absolutely focused on providing the best care to my patients.

When a dispenser once asked me, “Why do you care so much about your patients?” I replied, “Because I know what it’s like when no one cares”. No patient is ever just a number to me – this has become the principle of my practising style.

Working in the country turned out to be my most rewarding accomplishment to date. Professionally, I felt I made a real difference to the people who needed care the most. In my personal life, however, I knew I was letting myself down. The biggest issue was the country lacked resources and access to many important things. There were hardly any CPD events to look forward to, or ophthalmologyoptometry support groups. And as much as I loved country practice, the isolation was silently taking its toll on me.

I came back to Sydney earlier this year. The decision to do so was sudden and unplanned, but it’s been one of the best decisions of my life.

My dream was to work as a locum, a true independent optometrist, and I’m glad to say I’ve achieved that. As an experienced regional relief optometrist, I’m now a nationwide mentor for my colleagues too. Looking back, I’m very proud I never gave up despite all those hardships. Optometry has never been boring because there’s an unlimited amount we can learn from ophthalmologists and our fellow practitioners… and there will always be a big difference to make. One thing I’ve learnt in life is the importance of being the person who cares. That can make all the difference.

Wendy Saw graduated with First Class Honours in optometry from The Queensland University of Technology in 2012, and practises as a locum optometrist in Sydney and regional Australia. She is a Co-chair of the Corporate Engagement Committee of Early Career Optometrists NSW/ACT.