Kids at Northwest Eye Clinic in Minnetonka can choose from a variety of fun, colorful eye patches to help with vision correction. That’s a lot more options than Laura Olson had when she was “patching” growing up.
“I don’t know if they even made these back then,” Olson said about the patches decorated with trains, hearts and glitter.
Olson, 28, was born with a condition in her left eye called persistent fetal vasculature. That means her eye didn’t form correctly, which can lead to chronic vision problems or, potentially, blindness.
At 1 day old, her mother brought Olson to see pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Freeman. At 6 days old, Olson had the first of six surgeries to fix a cataract.
Over the years, visits to Freeman became a weekly, then monthly, occurrence.
“It was a lot of dedication,” Freeman said. “I’d see her mom every week and she’d bring her older sister with her … and so I watched [Olson] grow for years.”
Freeman still keeps his eye on Olson, but she’s no longer his patient. Now she works alongside her former doctor as an orthoptist.
While many people have never heard the term “orthoptics,” the field is decades old. Orthoptists work with eye doctors, evaluating and treating patients with vision disorders. Programs typically require a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by two years of orthoptics study.
Olson grew up in Burnsville with an older sister and attended Christian schools. She enjoyed coloring and crafts, but avoided sports, something she attributes to weak hand-eye coordination.
From an early age, she was required to learn regular contact lens care. She also had to wear a right eye patch to train her brain to use her left eye. Sometimes she’d lose a contact while taking a bath and her parents would have to use a pasta strainer to find it. Keeping an eye patch on also required some ingenuity.
“I did not like to wear the patch,” Olson said. Her parents “had to put mittens on my hands so I didn’t pull it off and then I figured out how to take those off. So then they tied them with string [and I] figured out how to untie them.”
Before turning 18, she had undergone three surgeries for eyelid and eye alignment corrections. After high school, Olson attended Bethel University to study nursing.
But at 21, Olson began to think about pursuing a different career.
Nursing, she said, “wasn’t really up my alley. My heart wasn’t really in it anymore.” She was struggling with the coursework but didn’t know what would be a better fit.
Around that time, Olson’s mother, a dental hygienist, noticed that Olson’s eye alignment was regressing. She suggested that her daughter return to Freeman for a checkup.
“It was providence,” Olson said. “I got the answers to my prayers.”
Freeman asked Olson if she had considered the St. Catherine University’s orthoptics program that Freeman was running with his orthoptist Lisa Rovick.
“I asked him, ‘What is orthoptics?’ ”
After another eyelid surgery, Olson enrolled at St. Kate’s in 2011, with Rovick as her teacher. It was a place she was supposed to be.
“I could apply it to my life and what I had going on,” Olson said, adding with a laugh that living what she studied made the details easier to remember.
Her two-year program included nine months at Emory Clinic in Atlanta, where Freeman also had studied. In 2013, Freeman certified her as an orthoptist and brought her roses to celebrate.
Olson wears a gold star pin on her name tag to commemorate five years at Northwest Eye Clinic, where she now works with Freeman, her first job as an orthoptist. Full circle, she said.
She tests children’s vision, coaxing out answers with enticing toys and pictures of birds and trees.
She’s successful with her young charges most of the time. “You can only do as much as they let you,” she said of them.
A special perk of the job is that Olson can check her own eyes by asking co-workers if they notice any differences.
“It’s just nice working with the same people,” she said. “You get to know each other and how they work.
“We’re a close group here, which is nice … a little family.”
Imani Cruzen is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.