Millennials are called a lot of things, but recent attention has been turned to our obsession with traveling. Coined the Wanderlust generation, it’s estimated that millennials make up roughly 20% of international travel. However, for many new doctors the sharp reality of student loan debt often means postponing the trips fantasized about throughout life and during optometry school.
But, what if rather than postponing your travel plans, you could always have access to those ideal vacation locations while practicing optometry? It may sound a little too good to be true, but that’s exactly what I found after moving to Europe post-graduation.
After graduating in 2016, I made the decision to move to Germany with no clear idea how to apply my degree internationally.
As it turned out, I was living in a city which hosts an American military base. It was here that I learned about the opportunity to become what is considered a civilian doctor, an individual who is not a member of any military branch. I knew I had found my niche and started working down this path.
Reaching out to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), I was able to get in touch with people who would be able to provide me the information I needed. For those unaware of AAFES, it is the primary retailer for the U.S. Army and Air Force with the mission of providing services and goods for military personnel while stationed at home or abroad.
In addition to U.S. locations, international instillations are found as far away as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey, United Kingdom, South Korea, and Japan. Upon introducing myself to the Regional General Manager, I was informed about an opening on the local army base. I quickly polished my resume and submitted an online application. This earned me an interview and contract to accept a full-time position abroad!
What to expect working overseas
As with any office, unique challenges presented themselves.
By the time I began at my new location, the practice had been without a full-time optometrist for the previous six months. Therefore, before re-opening the doors, a seven-day intensive training period was hosted in Kaiserslautern by another AFFES optometrist. The training topics were diverse and all inclusive, including office management, safety, finances, marketing, insurance, inventory, and more. Upon completion, I assumed the roles and responsibilities of the supervisor, office manager and solo-practicing doctor. In the following week, I was introduced to my front office team to begin reestablishing a patient base from within the military community.
Networking and site visits became critical to ensure I could maintain the highest standards and quality of care.
I quickly introduced myself to the military doctors on a nearby base to establish a referral source for ophthalmology or if patients required follow-up care that was restricted by insurance. Within the German community, I worked with local optical shops and German ophthalmologists to ensure my keratoconus and RGP patients could be properly fit with lenses and that my strabismic and patients with binocular issues had an opportunity to seek the vision therapy training they needed.
Due to the limited access to colleagues and resources, evidence-based practice became my best friend, though despite the distance, I never felt alone. I always able to reach out for support from my new friends or from those who were stateside. Being a young solo practitioner abroad, maintaining communication with colleagues and mentors was especially important.
An experience of a lifetime
Optometry is so unique in that endless opportunities always present themselves to give back. My patients were no exception; they were the reason my experience was so meaningful. Many do not realize the challenges those stationed abroad face when attempting to seek healthcare in a foreign country. I was honored by the opportunity to provide eye care to those on active duty and to their families.
It goes without saying that one of the major perks of working abroad is the travel. Weekend trips took me across Germany, into Paris, onto beautiful beaches of Spain, and wandering through Christmas markets in Austria. I would be eating black forest cake in Germany’s Black Forest one weekend, and the next weekend I would be lounging in the park next to the Eiffel Tower.
One piece of advice for those who decide to follow in my footsteps: do not limit yourself because you are afraid of unknown.
“Das Glück hilft dem Kühnen.”
This is a German phrase that suggests that “those whom are courageous are most likely to succeed.” I moved to Germany unable to speak the language, having never visited Europe before and uncertain of my opportunity to practice as an optometrist. In return I have gained an experience of a lifetime with lifelong colleagues and even better friends.
We all joined this profession for different reasons, for some practicing and traveling may be the dream. Whether you love to travel or have international ties, where in the world will you be practicing?