By Kendra Hartsell
Monticello’s very own optometrist, Dr. Mary Gregory, has been recognized by the American Optometric Association (AOA) as a national leader in early childhood eye health.
Gregory, who joined Monticello’s Uptown Eye Care in 2002 with an emphasis in pediatric eye care, received the AOA’s 2014 Dr. W. Sullins, Jr. InfantSEE Award during the American Optometric Association National Meeting in Philadelphia.
The 5-day annual conference ran from June 25-29, and Gregory received her recognition during an awards ceremony on the 28th.
Gregory’s husband and two children, who will be entering sixth and seventh grade this fall, were able to join her at the conference.
“I work hard between my two clinics in Monticello and do a lot of public speaking and volunteering and working with our state politicians to ensure early children vision care,” Gregory said.
She added: “This often takes me away from my family and they are with me during some public events. They are also at an age where they are starting to understand my passion for children’s vision and my career. I thought it was important they see what my hard work means to other people in hopes they understand why I spend my time doing all these activities. They loved it!”
The national award highlights dedicated work in recruitment, training and practice in the no-cost InfantSEE program, as well as ongoing education andoutreach.
Gregory has been a huge part of the program since its inception in 2005. “It has taken years to get the word out!” she said.
Optometrists who participate in the InfantSEE program provide a no-cost comprehensive eye exam to any infant between the ages of 6 and 12 months.
The public health program, managed by Optometry Cares – the AOA Foundation, emphasizes that early childhood eye exams should be an important part of infant wellness care. Problems with vision development and eye health are easier to correct if treatment begins early.
“As babies we are not born knowing how to see. We develop our vision from birth through five to six years old,” Dr. Gregory explained. “This is critical in the overall development of the child and often problems go undiagnosed due to it not being a physically seen problem.”
According to Gregory, many times, vision problems go undetected until much older when it sets a child back starting school. By the age of five years old our brain uses our vision more than all the other four senses combined, yet the national statistics show only one in four children have had an eye exam by six years old.
“InfantSEE was started due to the fact that the leading cause of blindness and vision defects in children is amblyopia. This is commonly referred to as ‘lazy eye’,” she said. “Many people believe a lazy eye is when the eyes cross, and that can be one form, but many times the brain isn’t using both eyes–only one–and yet the eyes appear normal. This is a problem and sadly it is easily diagnosed and can be treated at a very young age.”
Gregory explained that the InfantSEE program is completely voluntary by the eye care provider. “There is no money changing hands anywhere,” she said.
Gregory feels strongly that the next exam should be at three years old; this exam, however, is not part of the InfantSEE program.“At this age children can do almost a complete full eye exam already. Their vision development is half way there and if there is a problem then it can be treated, monitored or redirected before kindergarten,” she said. “The next exams should be at ages 5, 6 and 7. These years are critical for learning to read; again, vision is very important in this activity and it sets the base for the rest of the child’s academic career.”
According to Gregory, former President Jimmy Carter was the spokesperson for the InfantSEE program.
“He had two grandchildren with amblyopia that were not detected until they were in school already,” she said. “A screening should not take the place of an eye exam and screenings often miss problems with early vision development.”
Gregory is the only InfantSEE provider at Uptown Eye Care. In 2013, she saw 82 babies and almost as many already in 2014. “Many doctors are uncomfortable working with infants, toddlers and preschoolers; I have always loved babies!” she said.
Gregory has been a catalyst in the Minnesota Optometric Association’s strong participation in InfantSEE, ranking the state among the top five in the nation. She is a committed InfantSEE recruiter and trainer–so committed, in fact, that in April 2011, she organized a statewide InfantSEE day through the help of a national grant given by the AOA.
“I worked with our state association to promote two goals: education for the public on the program and education for optometrists to become more comfortable seeing babies,” she explained. “It was very successful.”
The event was held at the Open Cities Public Health Clinic in St. Paul. “We had quite a few doctors participate in watching tricks to examining babies and then practicing them with us. It was a lot of work but definitely something I would consider again in the future.”
As Chairman of the MOA’s Children’s Vision Committee, Dr. Gregory has promoted volunteerism and spearheaded statewide education programs.
She has been active in the MOA’s legislative efforts in addressing early childhood eye health issues.
In regards to her recently accepted award, Dr. Gregory says, “I still can’t believe it! It was very surreal to be nominated which was quite an honor and then to actually be chosen was shocking. It feels great to know that all the work I have done is showing results and people are becoming aware of the program and the importance of vision. God has blessed me and I am thankful to share!”
Kendra Hartsell is a freelance business and feature writer for the Monticello Times.