A Sit Down – with Tom Headline COVT

This post appears as part of a series called Sit Down – candid conversations with real people detailing their journeys and experiences with Vision Therapy.

A Sit Down – Tom Headline COVT


For the benefit of our readers, can you explain how you are involved in Developmental Optometry? 

During my senior year of high school in 1985, a friend and classmate of mine, Michael Haug, recommended me to do data entry for them, so they could have their patient records entered into a software program called EyeCom. At that time, Dr. Bradford Murray was working in association with Drs. Burton Worrell and Larry Fabian. Mike, if you are reading this, thank you very much for helping me embark on this career path! Mike is an optometrist himself. Anyway, around 1988, I started training to become a vision therapist after having completed a vision therapy program for myself. Then, around 1992, Dr. Murray started his own practice and I helped him build that practice doing office management, insurance billing, frame selections, contact lens trainings, pre-testing, and directing the vision therapy until 2006. During my time with Dr. Murray, Dr. Carole Hong joined the practice for a short while before starting her own practice in partnership with Dr. Kristina Stasko in San Carlos, California. In 2005, Dr. Hong offered me a position with her office. After leaving Dr. Murray’s office, I continued with Dr. Carole Hong and for a brief time with Dr. Kristy Remick in El Dorado Hills when she was expanding her vision therapy practice and got to work alongside one of my best buds, Vicki Bedes. During my time with Dr. Murray, we had set up a satellite office in Santa Cruz, California. Several patients I had worked with wanted to continue their vision therapy program with me, so they put me in contact with Dr. Benjamin Popilsky in Aptos, California. I’ve been working with Dr. Popilsky since 2008. So, currently I work two days per week for Dr. Carole Hong and two days per week for Dr. Benjamin Popilsky.

 How did you first hear of Developmental Optometry? 

I think ‘officially’ when I started working at Westwood Vision Care, but I suspect I was exposed to developmental optometry much earlier. When I was very little, I had many coordination problems, plus I was pigeon-toed and my primary goal in gym class was to come out of uninjured. I’ve broken my arms, dislocated my knees…gym class was a bit of nightmare for me. I remember during fifth grade, I could make my reading book look blurry then clear and blurry and clear. In sixth grade, my family lived in Lisbon, North Dakota, and I distinctly remember the optometrist tell my mom that I had convergence insufficiency and astigmatism and was very light sensitive. I was prescribed glasses to wear all the time that had Photo-Gray Extra (they turned dark in the sun) and did so until about my junior year of high school when I lost them on my way home from school one day. Vision therapy hadn’t been mentioned to us during any of those years.

When I was hired by Westwood Vision Care, the data-entry job that was only supposed to last for three months. The area where I entered the patient data shared space with the waiting room for the vision therapy patients. So, I heard the parents sharing their experiences about VT and saw the patients come and go. After I completed all of the data entry, the staff realized that I was the only person who knew how to use the software, so they asked me to stay on and help at the front desk. I thought this would be a good way to earn some money as I attended San JoseState and majored in Business Finance.  During my freshman year, I was enrolled in Honor Humanities which required us to do things like read The Odyssey between a Tuesday and Thursday and discuss it in depth. So, with visual demands like that and working on the amber CRT monitors of the day, I was experiencing tons of headaches and eyestrain. Dr. Murray did my eye exam and recommended vision therapy for my convergence insufficiency and to help prevent myopia progression. Deena Ferry was my vision therapist, and vision therapy was very successful for me. No more headaches or eye strain and my myopia reduced. After that, Dr. Murray asked if I would be interested in becoming a vision therapist and the rest is history.

Very few people know this, but you actually worked with my mother for a period of time in Dr. Carole Hong’s office. Have any dirt you’d be willing to share? 🙂

No, but I could probably dig up some stories about you. 🙂 I loved working with your mom and find her to be a deeply caring person who really works hard to help the patients receive the help they needed in whatever way she could. I can see her influence helped you become a nice young man (at least some of the time)…now…have you called her recently??? Hmmm??? 

Tom Teaching

You have always been one of my VT heroes and our friendship has had such a positive influence in my life, both personally and professionally.  Can you tell us who in Developmental Optometry has had the greatest influence on Tom Headline?

Boy…that really means so much to me for you to say something like that. There have been many doctors and vision therapists over the years, so I hope not to offend anyone, but how about a top three of most influential vision therapists?

1)     Linda Sanet – Her books saved many VT sessions for me. Linda Sanet is my personal hero and she explained things in such a logical way. I know you understand as you had the privilege to work with Linda while you lived in San Diego. Her books really helped me make sense out of the VT process.

2)     Lora McGraw – Her approach to vision therapy influenced me in ways that I still implement in my own sessions on a daily basis.

3)     Ellen Severtson – I saw Ellen present at the California Regional Vision Therapists Forum around 1989. She made a statement during that presentation that really impacted me. She said, “Everything we do in vision therapy is about perception. When you introduce a lens is the patient aware of the change?” She also wrote a wonderful article around 1990 on Self-Esteem for The Optometric Extension Program Foundation that really struck me in a personal way. Having my life experience of not ever being ‘good enough’, self-esteem was something I had many issues with. Lastly, I saw Ellen ‘in action’ during the California Regional Vision Therapists Forum around 1995 where she assisted a new vision therapist through the Randolph Shuffle (a fairly complex Jumping Jack routine). It was amazing to witness. 

One of the recommended reading materials for all therapists considering certification is the Vision Therapist’s Toolkit, which you co-authored with fellow Vision Therapists Irene Wahlmeier and Vicki Bedes. How was this project born? 

VT ToolkitIrene, Vicki and I would meet as a study group every six weeks or so. Irene was living in Reno, Nevada and I live in San Jose, California – so Vicki’s house was somewhat midway for both of us being located in Pollock Pines, California. We were using Dr. Press’ book, Applied Concepts in Vision Therapy as our guide. While we were going through the amblyopia chapters, we shared a lot of monocular fixation in a binocular field techniques. These are techniques which are set up so the eye that habitually suppresses is the only eye that is capable of perceiving the given target. For example, a patient may wear a red filter over the non-suppressing eye while looking at visual targets printed in red against a white background so that only the habitually suppressing eye can perceive them. In any case, Irene commented that these ideas were pretty inexpensive, and suggested we put together a pamphlet called “Vision Therapy on a Shoestring Budget.” We thought that could help a lot of doctors who may not have the funds to invest in expensive equipment. Eventually, the pamphlet morphed into an idea of taking an object (such as a shoestring) and seeing how many VT activities we could develop.

So, we scheduled an official meeting at an El Torito in Stockton, California with the intention of performing shoestring activities in between trips to the breakfast buffet. However, we ended up discussing the challenges faced when training new vision therapists. We were all training new vision therapists in our offices at the time and realized we needed a training manual to give them for the times we couldn’t be providing hands-on training for them. We proceeded to write The 10 Commandments of Visual Hygiene right there at the table. Eventually, word got around about what we were doing and the book evolved into what you see.

So, I’d advise any vision therapist out there, join a study group or start one of your own. You never know what may happen. I was really fortunate to make two of the best friends of my life with Irene and Vicki. We swear we were probably siblings in a previous life. 

In 2006 you were awarded the COVT of the Year award at COVD’s Annual Meeting, which was truly a well deserved honor.  What is always intended to be a joyous occasion was overshadowed by some sadness in your personal life.  Can you tell us about receiving the award, and what transpired at home that same week?

Ugh…well…my father had been diagnosed with Merkel Cell Carcinoma in late 2005. He underwent removal of the cancer and radiation treatments in early-2006. In August, we found out that the cancer had metastasized to his collar bone. The oncologist recommended aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. My father’s health deteriorated quickly, and he entered the hospital in Mid-September. Back in those days, COVD kept award winners ‘secret’ and only revealed them at the Awards Luncheon.

In the days leading up to the 2006 Annual Meeting, many people were ‘pressuring’ me to attend the meeting; but my father was really ill and we didn’t know what was going to happen next. I explained this to everyone and let them know I’d love to see them at the meeting, but I’d have to wait until the following year. I couldn’t understand why so many people were urging me to attend COVD. Finally, during the week of COVD, I asked the doctor about my father’s status and he informed us that my father was going to be released that following Saturday to go home. We thought he had turned a corner, so I figured I could go to COVD for a few days and return Friday night and help my mom get my dad set up at home on Saturday.

During the Awards Luncheon, I was stunned to learn I had won COVT of the Year. I called my parents and informed them. It was really exciting. I flew back home that Friday. On Saturday morning, I entered my father’s hospital room only to find out that his condition declined dramatically over the past couple of days. The doctor on duty informed us we needed to consider ‘comfort care options’ and that his remaining time was short. I spent that Saturday night in his hospital room, and he passed away at 5:30 am Sunday morning. So, within about 72 hours I went from soaring above the clouds to a valley of sadness. It was a rough time. 

As a mentor to aspiring COVTs, is there one blanket piece of advice you’d offer to all as they begin the certification process?

Actually…if you’ll allow…three main points:

1)     Join a study group and get a mentor!

2)     Download the current COVT Candidate Guide and look over the Open Book Questions. I think these beautifully expose you to many of the different visual skills and types of knowledge that is required of you. Attempt to answer the questions based on what you know right now without cracking a book. Where do you feel your strengths and weaknesses lie? Listen to how you explain a procedure’s purpose to a patient or a parent. Does it seem that they really understand what you are saying to them? Then, read…read…read and then read some more.

3)     Go through a vision therapy program as a patient yourself. I believe having direct personal experience goes a long way to helping you with your patient interactions and understanding vision therapy itself. I believe having personal experience can help you as a vision therapist speak from a place of great confidence in the power of vision therapy. 

You’ve served as the chair of the Vision Therapists committee for almost 5 years.  What has that experience been like, and what can we look forward to in the future?

I have really enjoyed making a contribution to the profession and hopefully helping to prepare our field for developments in the future. I do not want to accept any credit for what I’m about to say; however, I think we’ve seen great growth in the contributions that vision therapists are making to COVD. Over the past few years we’ve witnessed Linda Sanet’s appointment to the International Examination and Certification Board, serving as the first vision therapist to hold a Board position. We’ve seen dramatic changes in the certification process with modifications to the Open Book Questions, new multiple choice exams have been developed and a more transparent Oral Interview process, and a very active COVT Mentoring process.  For the future, I think the taskforce looking into possible licensure and more standardized training/education for vision therapists are very exciting developments. Tom Natali

What impact do you feel Vision Therapists will have on the future of Developmental Optometry?

Wow! I think the future is really bright. I think we are seeing more Optometrist/Vision Therapist teams. I think OD’s are listening more to the vision therapists as colleagues and truly value our insights regarding the patient’s treatment plan and care. 

What attributes make a quality Vision Therapist?

  • Genuine concern for people
  • Listening to a person not just in what the person says, but in what they don’t say as well
  • The ability to observe
  • Flexibility…in more ways than one
  • Thinking quick on your feet
  • Desiring to learn more 

In your experience, what can parents do to ensure Vision Therapy is a positive and successful experience for their child, and for themselves?

This is a very complex question. I’ll do my best:

1)     Clearly defined goals for the vision therapy. Often, I encounter the patient who can only read for five minutes and then their eyes are too tired to continue. Or, there is the child who is copying one letter at a time from the board because they do not feel they can remember more than that. Examples such as these provide the parent with measureable performance data which they can compare with current performance when the progress evaluations take place. Is Joey reading more than 5 minutes before fatigue sets in, or is he able to copy more than one letter at a time? When the goals are ambiguous, such as “We’d like to see Joey reading better,” it makes vision therapy more challenging. What constitutes ‘reading better’? I think ‘real-life’ changes are more meaningful to them versus hearing that Joey’s base-out range at near increased from 5 prism diopters to 15 prism diopters, but when the parent witnesses Joey reading for 30 minutes now versus 5 minutes and isn’t complaining that his eyes are tired, that’s HUGE!

2)     Time. Make certain you really have the time to do your home support activities and can consistently attend your sessions. Often, many of these patients are enrolled in many therapies and tutoring and other extra-curricular activities. They are so busy that they may not have the time to really develop the visual skills we are asking them to. I feel they should get the most of any therapy they are doing, so it may be wise for them to concentrate on their OT and really get the most out of that and once that is complete, start VT and get the most they can out of it. If you’re going to do any therapeutic intervention, be it VT, OT or speech therapy, please, get the most you can out of the experience versus just going through the motions.

3)     Realize that you don’t have to do the activities perfectly from the start. If you could, what would be the point of doing vision therapy in the first place?

4)     Have fun with the vision therapy. Try to convert the activities into games where you can. Learning is enhanced when it’s fun.

friends VT

How would you describe yourself in the Vision Therapy room? 

Focused. My main goal is to help effect a positive change in the patient’s life. I also want to make the session a safe and fun learning experience. I know from my own experience, many of the activities can be physically uncomfortable, and it can be very scary to put yourself ‘out there’ and possibly fail at doing something new. Plus, you worry, “is this person watching me going to make fun of how I approached this task?” I really listen to what the patient is telling me about what has been going on with their home support exercises that week and what is happening in their daily life, so I can hopefully modify the program of activities into something relevant to what is happening with them currently. If I’m not able to implement certain procedures at this time, I’ll think about what I need to do to foster the patient’s abilities in preparation for that critical procedure they’ll need. So, the wheels in head are turning during the whole session. 

How did the idea of instructing VT 101 come into your life? 

In 2012, I was conducting exit interviews with COVT candidates after their Oral Interviews. Dr. Gary Williams approached me in between interviews and asked if I would be interested. It was like a dream coming true. I was humbled and honored at being asked. I was excited to say, “Yes!” Another dream I’ve had is to be teaching about vision therapy at one of the optometric colleges. That would be really cool. 

One thing I’ve always admired about Tom Headline is your ability to stay positive in the face of adversity or overwhelming obstacles. Is this an innate skill or something you consciously work on?

Wow…you give me way too much credit. Believe me…I have my moments of personal frustrations and failures. I guess over my life there are periods of time when I’ve reflected on a current situation occurring in my life, and I’ll notice how certain experiences from my past have prepared me for what is happening now. Unfortunately, often when I’m in the throes of the ‘negative’ event happening, I don’t really understand its purpose until I’ve made it through to the other side. Even then, it may be years before I’ve realized why I had to go through that experience. So, I try to remind myself that this ‘negative’ experience is preparing me for the future by providing me the opportunity to develop an ability or skill I’ll need for something coming up down the road.


Pictured from left to right: Tom, Ivette Huerta, Carrie Larkin, Karen Danoski, Robin Vreeland, Jessica Stevenson, Natali Sutermeister, Irene Anderson, and yours truly.

Some Closing Thoughts – A great thanks to my good friend and VT constituent, Tom Headline, for taking the time for this interview.  As most people have shared during these interviews, attending COVD’s Annual Meeting holds a dual meaning – the education offered and the friendships rekindled. As shown in the photo above, Tom is part of the great bunch of people that I consider my immediate circle of friends.  He is truly one of the most welcoming people I have ever met, and he definitely is one of the great reasons the meeting has such a family atmosphere. Please join me in wishing my good friend, Tom Headline, the absolute best! 🙂


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