Photography by Tom McKenzie.
Excerpted from page 18 of the March/April 2022 edition of AOA Focus.
Lillian Kalaczinski, O.D., packs a lot of experience—whether from her own life or from caring for the health of underserved populations she champions—into her teaching at Michigan College of Optometry (MCO) at Ferris State University.
At MCO, Dr. Kalaczinski shares the benefit of her own education with future and present doctors of optometry as associate professor, chief of primary care services at University Eye Center, and associate director of continuing education. She brings to her teaching a decade at Cherry Health, a federally qualified health center (FQHC) in the state, in administrative and clinical roles serving predominantly low-income minority groups and patients spanning all ages.
“It was her tenure with the FQHC, and the wonderful patients she met there, that fostered her interest in public health,” the Michigan Optometric Association says. And she imparts to students her experience as a patient—Dr. Kalaczinski has severe myopia. It’s all those experiences that earned her the 2021 AOA Optometric Educator of the Year Award.
In a Q&A with AOA Focus, Dr. Kalaczinski talks about finding the right fit for her—teaching.
After 17 years in clinical practice, why did you decide to pursue teaching?
In 2005, I had been director of vision services at Cherry Health for 10 years and felt like the clinic was stable and had great providers and staff in place. I saw a posting for a full-time faculty person at MCO, which was looking for someone who had experience in public health and could serve as chief of primary care services at the college. The job seemed meant for me, so I applied, knowing it was a good time to make a change.
You were diagnosed with myopia in the second grade. How did it lead you to a career in optometry?
I decided on optometry because I have terrible vision (severe myopia) and several of my older relatives had gone blind for various reasons. I knew I wanted to be in health care, so optometry seemed a great fit. I remember saying in my optometry school interview, “If I go blind, I want to understand why,” and that is still true today. I did not think about teaching until my fourth year of optometry school. I was fortunate to have some excellent teachers both at MCO and while completing my fourth-year rotations.
I thought it would be great to have that impact on future students’ lives. The desire to explore teaching while obtaining additional clinical training drove me to complete a Primary Care Residency at Illinois College of Optometry, which included a clinical teaching requirement. I loved it but decided to pursue a clinical path after residency instead of academia.
Does being a practitioner inform your teaching?
Absolutely 100%. I can’t teach without explaining the real-world nuances of some of the content. One of the most common things I hear from students on my teaching evaluations is that they appreciate my real-world perspective. I know I am a better teacher because of my clinical experience, no question. I think my strength is as a clinical instructor. The enthusiasm and inquiry that students bring to patient care keeps it exciting for me as a teacher and clinician. Also, working with students means I have to keep my own skills and knowledge up to date and that is a full-time job on its own.
How did working at Cherry Health inform your teaching?
I was the first full-time doctor of optometry and eventually became the director of vision services for Cherry Health, which is the largest FQHC in the Midwest. Almost every patient I saw in my 10 years there was from an underserved, lower socioeconomic background. FQHCs have been talking about health disparities and social determinants of health for decades and long before these terms became common knowledge. My years changed me as a person and as a clinician and helped me understand that poor health is so much more complicated than lack of care. I am gratified to see some of these issues come to greater awareness because of the inequities observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope we are ready to tackle these issues as a society to create better health for all Americans. I bring all of these issues to my teaching in public health courses at MCO.
Where do you find the time to work on your MPH?
I had to take this semester off because my home and work calendars were already too full. I fit it in around parenting and my family (always my first priority!) and work. I have a highly organized schedule to keep track of everything and fit as much into every day as possible. My MPH work happens at night and on the weekends. It is going to take me a while to finish because I can’t take more than two classes a semester because I am so busy. I really enjoy the content though, so it doesn’t seem like work, usually.
Myopia Management Clinical Report