Alumni Focus on Barbara Marcussen-Vaher ('91) and Harald Vaher ('92)
Barbara Marcussen-Vaher: Ashland, Ohio
Harald Vaher: Columbus, Ohio
Were you the first optometrist in your family?
Why did you choose to attend Ohio State?
BMV: I was living in Ohio and when I looked at colleges of optometry, I was most impressed with Ohio State.
HV: I was a BIG Buckeye fan and Ohio State had a great reputation.
Which degree(s), related to optometry, did you earn at Ohio State?
BMV: My OD degree in 1991. I then went on to do a residency at the VA hospitals in Columbus and Chillicothe in 1991-1992.
HV: My OD degree in 1992. I then went to University of Alabama - Birmingham and did a Family Practice residency in 1992-1993.
Name a mentor from the College of Optometry or a person who had a positive effect on your education.
BMV: I worked part-time as a student for Robert Newcomb (Bob), who taught me a lot while working at the VA clinic in Columbus. That led me to want to do a residency there and learn even more. Bob Newcomb taught me a lot during my residency. It helped make our decision to move to NC where we wanted to practice full-scope optometry and be able to manage and treat all the eye conditions we would see. Bill Schuler at the Chillicothe VA taught me excellent record keeping. I also want to thank so many of the other doctors who encouraged and taught me during my residency. Mark Smith, OD worked at the Chillicothe VA hospital during my residency and taught me to invest. He made me open my first IRA at the age of 23 and contribute the full $2,000 that year (even on my residency salary). I thank him for teaching me so early about the importance of saving for the future. I have always appreciated that valuable lesson! He would be proud to know that we still aggressively plan for retirement today.
HV: I believe I had a great education at Ohio State. The professors there were all good and helped me to be ready to succeed. I enjoyed my rotation through the Columbus VA, which helped me learn about eye diseases and disorders. I look back at my education and appreciate the opportunities I was given that led to a successful career in optometry.
Tell us about the evolution of your optometry career.
BMV: I started out working for two years for an OD in a small town in NC. We fell in love with the area and decided to open a practice here. We have been in private practice in the wonderful small town of Belmont, NC for the past 22 years. Belmont is a great place to raise children and is right next to Charlotte so we can still enjoy city life when we want it. We enjoy practicing in a small town and being part of the place where we work and live. I must say, we enjoy the sunshine and blue skies we get in NC!
HV: Barbara found an OD in NC and was working for him. We liked the area and I decided to open up a practice “cold.” When her practice association did not work out, she joined me in practice. Our practice has been open since 1994. We now have two associates working for us. We are actually looking for another associate, so if anyone wants to enjoy the great weather of NC, come join us.
Give us a glimpse of your typical day as an optometrist.
BMV: I practice three days a week. We have two girls ages 14 and 9. I coach Girls on the Run at their school and enjoy being able to be there for them. I have started to fit scleral lenses for people with corneal conditions such as keratoconus and really enjoy making such a difference in people’s lives. I have started to carve away more time to do this since we have two associates who work in our office now as well as us. We brought on an OD who started a Vison Therapy clinic in our office a few years ago and enjoy seeing subspecialties being offered in our practice as well as general optometry. I enjoy seeing Medicare-aged patients as well and treat a fair amount of glaucoma and dry eye conditions. I have been doing ortho-k for more than 10 years. It is great to see myopia not progress so quickly in children’s eyes. I recently started doing ortho-k on our young daughter when she became myopic from seeing how well my other patients had done.
HV: We see a lot of medical eye conditions in our practice. I do not see as many children myself anymore now that we have our associate who specializes in children. I do the business side of the practice, so I manage the checkbook and balance all the expenses as well as clinic time.
Tell us a special story that relates to your career now.
BMV: The first time I put some scleral lenses on a woman who had keratoconus and was in her 50s she said, “I haven’t seen like that since 4th grade.” I will never forget that moment. I felt compelled to help others in her situation. I had been designing scleral lenses for my ortho-k patients for years. Now I do so with different designs for corneal conditions. I recently saw a man who had bilateral corneal transplants in 1979. He had poor vision since then. I fit him in scleral lenses and he is now seeing 20/25 with his scleral lenses for the first time in over 39 years. He is now able to drive and do so many other things that he was not able to do before. It has been so rewarding to be part of a profession that can make such a difference in someone’s life.
HV: I found an iris melanoma and saved a patient’s life in my career. I have also found glaucoma in a patient as young as 14. I appreciate knowing I made a difference in someone’s life. We practice in a small southern town where our patients regularly show up with baked goods and ask how our girls are doing at all their visits.
What’s one thing you learned during your education that has affected you most in your career?
BMV: My residency through Ohio State in the VA clinics helped me to feel comfortable treating eye disease. I really was glad to work with so many subspecialties, which helped me get comfortable practicing in a small town. Our office is located in a medical park and the local primary care physicians refer eye problems to us often. I am glad I got a good foundation to be able to feel comfortable with working together with different specialties in treating people.
HV: Taking the time to explain to patients what you are doing and why you are doing it. People appreciate understanding what is going on and you can educate them so they realize the importance of an annual eye health exam.
Why did you choose a career in optometry?
BMV: I remember going to an appointment at my local optometrist’s office with my mother. When he looked in her eye, I asked if I could look also. I remember seeing the blood vessels in the back of her eye and being fascinated by how much you could see and tell about someone from their eye. I know now that is true from my career. I have found so many different conditions such as several brain tumors, leukemia, and patients with high cholesterol that I know optometry plays such an important role for our patients' overall health.
HV: I wanted to choose a profession where I could help people. I also liked the idea of being my own boss. I knew I wanted to be part of a private practice and felt comfortable opening a practice “cold.” My wife and I had student loans when we graduated but not near as high as we hear about now. I am not sure todays graduates could afford to open a practice themselves after graduation.
Why are you passionate about your career?
BMV: Learning to fit scleral lenses for people with corneal conditions and diseases has really made me passionate to help make a difference in their lives! I have never fit one yet who has not shed some tears after telling me how much better their life is now. I think it would be a rare profession where you could have someone get so emotional telling you what a difference you made in their life.
HV: I like to know the impact I can have on someone’s life. I have enjoyed seeing people for the past 20 years who have entrusted their eye care to us. I remember when we first started out, we would look at ideas to market the practice to people. Now, we just take care of our patients and they send in referrals. It is so much easier. We are now at the place where about 80% of our patients are established.
Advice for aspiring optometrists.
BMV: Find a specialty and really focus on it. With vison insurance really lowering reimbursements and setting up their own retail locations, I think having a specialty that excludes vision insurance such as low vision, vision therapy, or specialty contacts is a great idea for a new graduate.
HV: It is important to acquire as much business knowledge as you can. If you want to own your own practice, you must be knowledgeable about business, not just about optometry. It is also important to be able to relate to all types of people in our profession. The people with the most social skills and who are well liked by their patients, are often the most successful.
OHIO STATE EXPERIENCE
Most memorable moment(s) at Ohio State.
BMV: Best moment: The day I met my husband (who was in optometry school with me in the next year’s class). We had a lot of fun at the EYE parties and I met some good friends, some of whom I continue to keep up with from afar.
HV: I enjoyed all the time spent at the EYE house. I met a lot of good lifelong friends while in optometry school. Of course the Buckeye football games were always special. I still get back for a football game every year.
What does Ohio State mean to you?
BMV: I am still a “Buckeye’ at heart! I proudly wear my Buckeye attire around the Clemson and NC State attire down here. I know Ohio State gave me a great education and the tools I needed to succeed.
HV: The Ohio State University for me is about tradition. It is about football. I have my basement decorated in Ohio State football and enjoy watching the Buckeyes play. I am proud to be an Ohio State graduate.
How did you two meet?
BMV: We met in optometry school. I still remember going to my mailbox in the student lounge and finding a sweet note he had written.
HV: I met Barbara at optometry school. We both were in the EYE fraternity and went to all the activities there.
What is it like working alongside your spouse on a daily basis?
BMV: We don’t practice together except one day per week. When we do work on the same day, it is rare to see each other because we are always with patients. Harald is on one side of the office and I’m on the other. I run home to get the girls after work and he is the one who stays to clear up everything. I think it works well in that Harald does all the financial aspects of the practice and I do the marketing and staff issues. That way we are not both trying to manage the same areas. We have been a good team together had have been blessed with a practice that has gown well beyond anything we every hoped to imagine.
HV: We don’t often have time to see each other at work. We have been blessed to have a busy practice and we are usually with patients constantly while in clinic. It has been nice to have a practice where we can balance patients and the needs of our family. We have made it work and have celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary this summer.
What are your current hobbies, volunteer work, interests?
BMV: I started playing tennis about 10 years ago and really love the sport. I play often due to the great weather in NC. I also run about 5 days a week and coach my daughter’s ‘Girls on The Run’ team. I am on the board of my daughter’s school and also on the board of our church. I am active in my daughter’s school and enjoy going in to do crafts etc. with her class. That is one of the great things about our profession. I can set my hours to work well with my family.
HV: I like to golf and work out. I enjoy my regular golf group and enjoy going on several golf trips each year. I have volunteered during the years of practice at several organizations such as Jaycees, Rotary, and the Board of Health of our county. It has allowed me to meet other professionals in our area and it has led to new investment opportunities. I enjoy investing and have started to do some real estate investing. Of course I still have a passionate interest in Buckeye football! We enjoy traveling and have started taking our girls on some longer trips each summer for the past several years. We have traveled out west, gone to Hawaii and New England area. We are planning on taking them on an Alaskan cruise this summer. Once we explore everything about this country we will move on overseas. Barbara and I traveled quite a bit before we had children and enjoy traveling and showing our children different sights.
If not an optometrist, I would be ...
BMV: I thought briefly about being a teacher. I used to joke that in the summer I picked the wrong profession since I would miss having the summers off, however, I really am happy I chose the one I did!
HV: If I left optometry now, I would continue to invest and develop new real estate opportunities. I like this area and enjoy looking for new opportunities to invest.