A Short Conversation with Dr. David Damari, ASCO President
Each July, ASCO swears in a new President to serve for the year. This year’s President, Dr. David Damari, sat down with ASCO’s Intern, Amanda Howarth, and Director of Communications, Kimberly O’Sullivan to talk about the next twelve months.
Dr. David A. Damari is the Dean at Ferris State University Michigan College of Optometry. Prior to his appointment as Dean, he was a professor at Southern College of Optometry (SCO) and the Chair of the Department of Assessment, responsible for institutional review, measures of academic outcomes, and regional and professional accreditation. He is a Fellow and past president of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development and a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry.
Dr. Damari: I’m excited and honored to be ASCO’s president. I’ve been involved with ASCO since I was an optometry student at SUNY. I’ve always been aware of ASCO’s role in the profession and it’s a remarkable privilege for me to lead this great organization where I will get to work with the great Presidents and Deans at all the schools and colleges of optometry.
It’s a difficult time in all healthcare professional education right now. There are fewer students graduating from high school, which means fewer graduating from
college, and thus less students applying to healthcare professional schools overall. We have the challenge of getting the best and the brightest college students to recognize what a terrific profession optometry is – a profession that helps people improve their quality of life. In my opinion, there is no other healthcare profession that does more to improve people’s lives than optometry.
Optometry is a fun and exciting field that truly impacts lives. I believe we face the challenge of doing a better job to communicate this to potential students around the country. Some of the publications that ASCO has produced really do that well. The “True Stories” brochure eloquently captures how much our profession can do for patients. Those communications go a long way about informing people about our profession. We can and must keep doing more to attract the best and the brightest.
ASCO: What will be some of your top priorities this year?
DD: Dr. Zadnik got us started on the strategic planning process so my top priority is to finalize our Comprehensive Strategic Plan and to start its implementation. Specifically, the number one priority is to build our applicant pool. I want to increase our effectiveness in various operations, to give our staff better resources, and to better communicate with our volunteers. We need to continue to take advantage of our great, new Executive Director, Dawn Mancuso. We’re excited for the direction ASCO is going in.
ASCO: What are your ideas to help the ASCO staff further the Strategic Plan?
DD: I hope to visit the ASCO office when we’re in D.C. this year and meet with the staff. I had been there when I became Dean four years ago and I look forward to seeing everyone. In my past work with the staff, I have found them to be great to work with and passionate about the profession. I want to make sure that we can capture that passion and give them what they need in terms of volunteers and resources to carry out the Strategic Plan.
ASCO: What drew you to optometry? What did you find most appealing about the field of optometry?
DD: I initially thought I would go into law. During my gap year between college and graduate school, I was talking to my Doctor of Optometry about going to law school and he said he didn’t picture me as a lawyer. He told me he thought I would be a great optometrist. He convinced me to spend a day at his office, where I saw many different aspects of optometry, including vision therapy, which I found eye-opening. He turned my whole perspective around and I went to optometry school for the next 4 years.
Two things have really continued my passion for optometry. The first is the patients I have seen over the years. One of the greatest things about optometry is that you impact people for the rest of their lives. I had a private practice in the mid-90’s in Rochester and had many patients. Twenty years after selling that practice, I am still receiving letters and calls from, and running into at professional conferences, former patients who thank me for turning their lives around.
The second thing that has continued my passion for optometry is that I had tremendous mentors in my career. Even before I was in school, my optometrist changed my life path. Those mentors really inspired me and moved me forward.
ASCO: What drew you to teaching? How did you become so passionate about optometric education?
DD: When I was in private practice, I loved the patients and the impact we were having on their lives, but what I hadn’t expected was the teaching bug had really bit me when I was a clinical assistant professor at SUNY. As a Doctor of Optometry you impact a lot of lives, but as an optometric educator, you impact all the lives of the students’ patients as well. It really is an exponential impact. I’m very passionate enlarging the future of our profession and what we can do for patients. I felt the most effective way to do that was to get into optometric education.
It was a privilege to work with Dr. Billy Cochran, who was president of Southern College of Optometry at the time, who made a big impact in what I saw in optometric education and who taught me strong leadership qualities. Working with people like him and others in optometric education has really shown me this is a great way to serve the profession as well as to enrich and enlarge the profession. This ASCO presidency term is just another step in my attempt to serve this profession that I love so much.
ASCO: If you were speaking with a student who is interested in becoming a Doctor of Optometry or with a student who has the aptitude but may not know about optometry, what advice would you give them?
DD: I would ask them, “How do you picture yourself living the rest of your life and in your career? Do you want to serve others and influence their ability to live better lives?” I think that optometry is a great way to do that, which is not readily apparent – making it even more important. We need our visual systems to serve us comfortably and tirelessly throughout the day, and there is no other profession that can address that need. I would say to a student that becoming an optometrist gives you the opportunity to impact the success of others throughout their whole life.
ASCO: On a more personal note, tell us a little about your life outside of the workplace. What was the last vacation you took? What are some of your hobbies?
DD: My son studied for a semester in Florence. He was studying architecture – couldn’t convince him to do optometry! He does make an impact on vision though, as architecture affects the buildings and infrastructure we look at every day. We visited him in Florence and then also went to London and Paris. That was a great trip. Our daughter had also spent a semester abroad in London so when we went to London on this trip, she showed us around that big city. I love traveling because I always try to keep my mind open to what other people experience. I find that it enriches my mind to know what other people’s experiences are like.
As for hobbies, I do a lot of reading and too much binge watching of Netflix and Hulu. I’m very excited for the new season of Kimmy Schmidt to come out. What I miss about my time in New York was I saw a lot of plays and watched a lot of baseball games. I don’t do a lot of that anymore, but I used to love doing that.
ASCO: You have served as the Dean of the Michigan College of Optometry at Ferris State University since 2013. Tell us a little about your school and your experience being a proud Bulldog. What have been some of your favorite things about living in Michigan?
DD: I never saw myself as a Dean but someone who knew my passion for the profession convinced me to apply for the job at Ferris State University. I interviewed and I loved it. The people up here are wonderful. One of the best things about being a Bulldog is that the people at Ferris State University are passionate about the students. The population is incredibly diverse. A lot of students are first generation college students. I was the first in my family to attend college, so for me, I feel a real personal connection there.
Michigan is similar to where I grew up in upstate New York so it was like coming home when I came to this job. After 16 years in Memphis, which is very different than New York, it really felt like coming home. It’s great to have four seasons again. After you make it through the cold winter, you are rewarded with the beautiful spring, summer, and fall. Big Rapids is a cute, small town and because it’s a college town there are many activities to do. It’s just been a really great move for us.
ASCO: And lastly, our intern, Amanda, is graduating this May and plans to pursue a career in public health in the future. Amanda asks, what common behaviors do you believe are strongly affecting the vision of the public? What advice do you have for someone who is passionate about improving vision at the broader level of public health?
DD: Vision is one of those aspects of daily life that people do not recognize impacts them. I hear people all the time say, “I have trouble looking at a map for directions,” and “I fall asleep when I read.” All of those are symptoms of different visual problems. I think that’s a big public health need – to educate the public on why their vision is so important. Itching eyes, fatigue, and headaches are all often caused by visual problems. We also have a public health crisis in this country with diabetes. Everyday Doctors of Optometry are making the first diagnosis of diabetes through the detection of the ocular signs of diabetes.
I think the biggest impact on public health our profession could make is to convince more people to come into an optometrist’s office for a comprehensive eye exam. I can’t tell you how many people have never had an eye exam because they believe they can see 20/20. At the same time, though, a lot of those people hate reading and always skip around on pages and they often feel really fatigued when working on the computer. It’s a shame that 20/20 is assumed to be perfect vision when 20/20 vision is only one aspect of visual health.
People struggle with settling with their vision every day because they don’t realize they’re struggling. Many people are losing their vision to diabetes and glaucoma. This is a real public health problem and optometrists must work with public health officials and other healthcare practitioners to improve everyone’s visual welfare.
Thank you for your time Dr. Damari! We wish you the best of luck as president!