A Sit Down – with Jessi Stevenson 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 – with Jessi Stevenson COVT
For the benefit of our readers, can you explain how you are involved in Developmental Optometry?
I am a certified vision therapist working with Professional VisionCare in Westerville, Ohio. I serve as the Clinical Director at our pediatric and Vision Therapy practice, called The Solution Center. This past year, I had the honor of joining both the writing and the continuing education committees within COVD. I am also a mentor and chair of the Therapist Social Committee.
How did you first discover Developmental Optometry?
I honestly lucked into it. My entire life I had been on one course with one goal, to become a medical doctor in a rural setting. I wanted to hold the hand of mothers in childbirth as they brought life into this world and hold the hand of souls leaving this world. I was relentless in that goal and everything seemed to fall into place. However, in my first year of medical school, God decided to reveal the true mission for my life…and it wasn’t to be a doctor.
How did you make the transition from medical school to Vision Therapist?
Leaving medical school was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. To say that I was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis was an understatement. After months of contemplation, I decided that the way to make the type of difference in someone’s life that I desired was to be an occupational therapist. But by that time in the year, schools were already in full swing. So I decided to get a job and wait it out until the next fall. Little did I know, this job, would become my career and my passion in life.
The job I was interviewing for was front desk receptionist at a local optometry office. At that point in my life, the only experience that I had with an optometrist was when my mom took me to at places like Sears and JcPenney’s. The thought of an optometrist changing people’s lives was completely foreign to me and then I met her…. Dr Carole Burns.
I actually cried in my interview because Dr Burns talked about how if a family needed care in our office and really wanted it, we would do whatever it took to get them that care. That concept was so foreign to what I had been exposed to in medical school, but it completely lined up with my own personal philosophy. She and her partners have kept that promise to this day.
So I got the job as receptionist and one day I was watching a little girl tap her toy on a mirrored glass display case. Mom was trying to talk to the optician and kept apologizing to the other patients in the office. I honestly thought that the little girl was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and the fact that her tapping was like music to her mesmerized me. I couldn’t help but to go to her and try to be part of her special world. I had gotten the opportunity in college to work with children on the autism spectrum and my heart went out to the little girl’s mom. I was saddened that she felt that she had to apologize for her beautiful daughter. I didn’t know that Dr Burns was watching the whole thing unfold. She came up to me later and instead of criticizing me for leaving my post at the front desk, she invited me to join the therapy team, thus starting my amazing new journey.
Pictured: Jessi with her husband, Preston
You completed your Vision Therapist Certification (COVT) in St. Louis, MO in 2001. What the process of certifying like?
My journey to certification was probably very different than any one else’s. I started with my practice in 1999 and as soon as I heard that there was a certification level available to me, I pursued it full force. I didn’t take the time to think that I might not be ready or that I was still so new to the field, it was a goal and I had to achieve it.
At that time, the mentor program was not the amazing thing that both Linda Sanet and Debbie Killion have made it into today. I was basically a lone boat trying to navigate unknown waters. My team of doctors were amazing though!!! Dr Burns and her husband Dr Mark Wright took me to dinner almost weekly to help pour into me. To this day, I can’t hear about the triad of the convergence system without smelling deep dish pizza. Dr Kristyne Edwards quizzed me on the plane and allowed me to perform depth perception activities on her until I got it just right. During my interview, I realized just how prepared I was when Dr Dan Fortenbacher made reference to “Carole must have prepped you for this interview”.
Being pre-med in college, I think really helped my transition to becoming certified. I was already very comfortable in a medical setting and was able to understand the anatomy and physiology of the eyes fairly well. But the one thing that I do want all therapists who are thinking of becoming certified to know is that at one point in your journey, no matter how much you think you know, you will come to the realization that you know nothing and you reach total confusion. Don’t give up at that point, push through it, you are on the verge of an amazing breakthrough.
Since completing your own certification, you have mentored many other Vision Therapists on their quest for certification. What has that experience been like?
I have loved being a mentor. I think because my doctors gave so much to me, I feel like I have to pass that on to others. My first mentee, Mary Ellen Smith from Kentucky, has become a dear friend who I would have never had the chance to interact with otherwise. My proudest moment was mentoring a fellow colleague and dear friend, Natali Sutermeister. Natali was the therapist that I had chosen to work with my own son, so I was honored when she asked me to help her.
When candidates of Mary Ellen and Natali’s caliber trust you to accompany them on an important journey in their life, it is humbling. The process has helped me to continue my education also and not allow myself to get rusty as I worked to help answer their questions.
But I have to be honest, it is not an easy journey. The number of mentors to candidates is very low, so often we are trying to mentor 2 or 3 candidates at a time. My hope is that more COVTs will become involved in this important committee.
Working in Vision Therapy while having young children of your own at home certainly places you in a unique position of possibly identifying with the parents you meet professionally. Do you find yourself becoming quickly empathetic for this reason?
Absolutely! I was a certified therapist for about 5 years before having kids and the way I approach everything is different now. Before the birth of my son, Lincoln, I was what you might consider “arrogant” as a therapist. I felt like I was good at my job and I knew a lot of things. I totally cared about my patients but I didn’t fully understand the parent dynamic. I hadn’t learned yet what it meant to have part of your heart walking around outside your body. Then God handed me this little guy who cried (okay, maybe freaked out is a better word!) when I set him in the grass and seemed to feel and experience things different than other kids. Lincoln has since by diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder.
As a parent, I had to learn what it feels like to want the world for my child, but feel limited in how to help. I also got to experience first hand what it felt like to hand my child off to a professional (Audra VanWinkle, the world’s best occupational therapist) and trust her to give him what I couldn’t.
When I parent trusts me to help their child, I don’t take that lightly. I have been in their shoes and although our journeys might be different, the goal is the same. I think the biggest thing that has changed in my approach to therapy is that I no longer view my job as “the leader” saying “Follow me, I will fix your child.” My real job is “supporter” where I stand beside them, sometimes even carrying part of their burden and help guide them through their own personal journey.
For parents who may be researching possible avenues to help their child, what are some good questions to ask the teacher at conference time, or anytime there might be a concern?
I think the most important thing that a parent needs to know is that you always need to trust your mommy/daddy gut. If something doesn’t feel right in your child’s care or schooling, it’s probably not. I suffered through a year of schooling with Lincoln because I didn’t feel like I could fight for something better for him. We are now at a new school and the difference in my son is remarkable. I didn’t even realize how unhappy he was until I see him smile every day now. Parents need to take on the role of advocate for their children; at day’s end they really are the ones who know their children best.
The other advice I would give is to not assume that the teachers and administrators don’t care. A lot of time, the issue is lack of knowledge in the area of vision. I love going into schools and talking to teachers. I have found almost all of them to be receptive to learning about how vision affects learning. For example, we attended a conference several years ago where a reading intervention specialist was talking about how wonderful her program was and I have no doubt that she was in fact doing good work. However, as we were watching the video of her with one of her students, the child was covering his left eye while reading. After the conference, the doctors and I were able to speak with her and now she is one of the greatest VT advocates we have. She just didn’t know what to look for.
As far as questions to ask, the most important thing a parent needs to know is “Is my child performing to his or her full potential?” If yes, how do we continue to foster an environment in which they will continue to achieve and if no, how can we work together as a team to help fix this.
In your experience, what can parents do to make sure Vision Therapy is a positive and successful experience for their child, and for themselves?
The kids who show the greatest success in therapy are the ones who truly understand why they are in therapy and what are the goals of their therapy. We can’t do vision therapy to a child. We need them to be engaged in the experience.
I have found that the parents who carve out time each night to work with their child one on one and make therapy a priority feel the greatest sense of success. It might sound controversial, but I think if it a matter of choosing between vision therapy reinforcement at home or homework, I would choose vision therapy every time. I think that sometimes we need to forget about academics, at least for a short time, and fix the underlying issues.
As a Vision Therapist, is there a patient age range of patient that you enjoy working with most?
There isn’t an age range as much as a population. I love working with children with special needs. When I look back at my life, I know that the people who will have taught me the most profound lessons are my patients with special needs especially those on the autism spectrum.
If you think about it, who else is better to teach us about patience than a child who has trouble communicating what they feel. They have to be the most patient people in the world because they are often dealing with others who don’t take the time to read the obvious communication signs they are showing. I call my friends with autism my Christmas presents. We just all need to take the time to unwrap them to discover what is truly inside. And really, who doesn’t love Christmas presents!
I also love working with patients with perceptual delays. I am so passionate about how people learn and utilizing better and more efficient strategies. I am kind of a nerd that way! But honestly, I think it comes from just a deep desire to help people not struggle. When I work with a child to fill in the gaps in their thinking process and they get that AH HA moment, I am not sure who gets more excited me or them.
If a list were ever constructed detailing the Vision Therapists with the highest emotional stake in their patient’s success, you would be in the top two, with Karen Danoski COVT following close behind – an admirable quality, to say the least. Where does that emotion come from?
To be put together in the same category with Karen in any capacity is an honor. Due to the fact that when Karen came to visit our practice this summer and we both took turns crying as shared stories about our patients, I would agree that we are both pretty emotional involved.
Pictured: Karen Danoski, Jessi, Natali Sutermeister
I have had so much love poured into my life that it is easy to share that with my patients. When I was a child, I attended speech therapy at Easter Seals. I don’t remember a lot about that experience (other than my goal was to learn to say Pittsburgh Steelers more clearly, because they are the greatest team that has ever been). The one memory that does stand out clearly though is that one day I got to watch Pete’s Dragon with a little girl my age who had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair with a breathing apparatus. In that moment, I remember thinking how different she and I were, but how completely the same we also were. We were two little girls laughing about a green and pink talking dragon.
I have learned despite whatever differences there might be that separates us, as humans we all have one thing in common. We want to know that someone else truly sees us and thinks that we are important (and yes, I might have stolen that from Oprah, but don’t tell anyone). If I approach every patient and parent that way, I can never go wrong.
You have a great story of how you first became involved with other therapists at an Annual Meeting of COVD. Please explain 🙂
So what you’re really asking is how did we become friends?
I had the privilege of attending COVD first with my doctors and then eventually with my husband, who is not in optometry. The advantage of attending with my doctors was that they introduced me to so many people. I always had dinner plans and was constantly involved. In the past few years, when they have been unable to attend, I got to experience a lot more outside of the conference halls because my husband and I used it as our vacation. At the Palm Springs conference, I had an AH HA moment. I felt guilty that I had the resources and connections to experience COVD to the fullest when I knew if left to my own, I would never leave my room. Regardless of how I have trained myself to come across, I am at heart an introvert. I wondered how many other therapists felt that way and I made it my mission to propose a social committee at the next therapist meeting. What I learned that day is when you propose something in COVD, it is often followed up with “Great, why don’t you head that up?” So the social committee was born.
The next year in Denver, I put on my first social activity where therapists brought their best ideas and then other therapists bid on those ideas to buy them for their own practices. We had a small but dedicated turn out and then half way through the night, our attendance doubled when a group of, shall we say, rowdies showed up! I was so thrilled that the people that I considered to be “the giants in therapy” came to my party. When the party ended, my husband drug me into the hotel restaurant and made me introduce myself to said group of rowdies. I am happy to say, they not only welcomed me with open arms, by they have become some of my dearest friends and we have been inseparable since.
Pictured: Some of the aforementioned “Rowdies” 🙂
COVD Annual Meetings are an incredible place to gain more knowledge in your field. But if you really want to experience the full extent of how great this profession can be, you need to take full advantage of the networking opportunities. Go up to someone at the meeting and introduce yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask to join a group of colleagues. I now attend COVD on my own. I hate to think how lonely I would be if my husband hadn’t have pushed me to take my own advice.
COVD’s Annual Meeting is a wonderful event and one where new friendships are made and existing friendships rekindled. In fact, at last year’s Induction Banquet, Dr. Lynn Hellerstein referred to the group as “one big family”. In your opinion, how important to our collective success is that sense of unity and teamwork as we push forward to help those affected by a learning related vision issue?
It is of utmost importance. We hold community workshops in our office once a month to educate parents and professionals on what vision therapy really is. I had an eye opening moment the other night when a guest said to me, “I understand the discord between optometrists and ophthalmologists, but I can’t understand why not every optometrist practices the same.” I think those are powerful words. True, there are several avenues that an optometrist can pursue within the profession, i.e. disease, contact lenses, vision therapy, etc and we need to celebrate those differences. But I think that thing that makes COVD special is that it is a group of optometrists who have joined together with a common goal….how do we help our patients live a happy, healthy, productive life with a well functioning visual system. It was my honor to tell that mom about COVD and to be able to assure her that I would personally recommend any doctor that you find within that organization.
In order to grow our family, we need to continue to he push to educate people about vision therapy. In the past few years, COVD has done a great job of getting into optometry schools and educating the future practitioners about vision therapy. But I think we need to start even sooner. I would love to see COVD doctors and therapist speaking at colleges, specifically to pre-med students and health science majors. I was never exposed to any alternatives other than the medical school track. In the end, God got me to the place I was supposed to be, but I just wonder, would my journey have been a little quicker if I had known just how great this field is.
Some Closing Thoughts – A great thanks to Jessi for doing this interview. As one of her “rowdies”, let me say she is an amazing therapist, friend and human being. Her passion for life and improving the lives of those around her is something of a phenomenon. Please join me in wishing Jessi, her family, and her patients the absolute best! 🙂