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Lessons from the African Plain

June 14, 2013

By Ronald Hopping, O.D., MPH, AOA president

As you may know, we have two boys, five years apart in age. When each of our sons turned 10 years old, I took them on a photo safari to Africa to see the world outside of Friendswood, Texas. It was a boys’ trip with grandfathers, uncles and dad. We each carried our own luggage, stayed in tents and ate whatever meal was served in camp that day. During the day, we drove around the African wilds in open-back Land Rovers taking pictures of whatever wild animals we came across, and during the night we listened to the cries of the hyenas, cats and baboons. One night, a rogue elephant bumped up against my dad’s tent, and one night the week before we moved in, a lion tore up a chair outside our tent. A very scary moment was when one of my sons who was on foot was stalked by a pack of hyenas. We were definitely exposed to the raw truths of nature.

On more than one occasion we watched a pride of lions hunt Cape buffalo and also hunt impalas. The lessons from those experiences were brutal and yet valuable. I think those lessons are meaningful for all of us in optometry. Simply put, the lessons were clear. The strength of the pride of lions and also the safety of the herd came from staying together and working together. Families survive, loners do not. Lions were most successful when they hunted together, and the herd was successful when it worked together. It was very rare for a lone animal, hunter or prey, to survive when they strayed from the family group.

I have spoken about the importance of the family of optometry for many years. The experiences the AOA Board and I have had as we travel around the country continue to reinforce that optometry is a family. We are a family with all our strengths, and with all our blemishes. We are a family that is robust and resilient. We are not a homogenous family, or all the same flavor, or always of like mind, but those variations and disagreements have made us better and continue to improve us.

My first awareness of optometry being a family goes back a long way. I recall the first time I thought of AOA being a family was as a young boy during my attendance at the AOA Congress—which has now grown into Optometry’s Meeting®. Each year, the Hopping family attended, and my brother, sister and I would look forward to seeing our old friends, our “optometric cousins,” from past years. Many of those cousins became optometrists themselves and are now lifetime friends. I still get to see them at Optometry’s Meetings.

Later, I gained new “optometric cousins” while I was a student at the Southern California College of Optometry, and I added even more cousins from among my students when I was a faculty member at the University of Houston College of Optometry. I look forward to seeing those branches of my family at state, regional and national optometry meetings.

One of the true joys of serving on many AOA projects and committees is that I now have many more optometric cousins whom I now look forward to seeing. Certainly, the education and the exhibits are important parts of the meetings we go to, but really, what I look forward to is catching up with my “cousins.” It is very likely there are certain optometric cousins you look forward to seeing at your annual state or national meetings as well.

Another early example of optometry being a family occurred when I was perhaps 10 years old. After the AOA Congress, the Hopping family would begin our family vacation. I know many other “cousins” did this and still do this today. But back then we didn’t have credit cards or ATMs to support the trip and banks really kept bankers hours. So, on one vacation, late on a Friday afternoon, as we were driving through a small town somewhere after the AOA meeting, my dad and mom were comparing wallets and decided they needed some cash to finish our trip. I remember sitting in the car while my dad went unannounced into an optometrist’s office and with his optometric business card he cashed a personal check. Afterward I distinctly remember asking my dad if he happened to know the optometrist who helped us out, and he said he didn’t, but that optometrists help each other. It was a great early lesson for me about this great profession. (And let me add that I would like to really thank that optometrist because I remember I was getting pretty tired of peanut butter and jelly on crackers to eat! Thanks, Doc!) We are all part of a small and important family.

As I write my final President’s Column and as I reflect on this past year, I am pleased that our optometry family has come closer together and has moved forward. Certainly we have our “loners,” but our profession has had success this year because we worked together. For the same reason, it is increasingly clear to me that our future has the potential to be exceptionally good.

Yes, I expect future changes that will be uncomfortable. Some of those changes will be difficult and some of the specifics are unknown. But I also know that I would rather face that future as an active member of my strong AOA family than as someone who is trying to make a go of things far from the herd.

As I said in my inaugural address: “The profession we enjoy today is a gift from those who have gone before us. Our future will depend on what we create together…We must not let anyone else, or anything else, write our future. We are the first-class citizens of vision and eye health care – and I believe, that as our world changes, together, and only together, will we, will the AOA, write the future we want for our patients and for ourselves.”

Thank you for your trust and support this year as we worked together to help write that future!

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