A Sit Down – with Lauren Morales 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 Lauren Morales COVT
Interviewed by: Melody Lay COVT
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us how you are involved in developmental optometry?
I currently work for Dr. Susan Jong at Advanced Eye Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a certified vision therapist. I see 20-25 patients per week and I love the fast paced environment. I have found such a joy in my job as a vision therapist that I am looking to further my education in Optometry school in the near future.
How did you first discover developmental optometry?
Since my junior year in college, I was set on going to medical school because I always knew that I needed a career where I would be helping people. I spent my last summer in school interning in Bangalore, India and once I got back, it was time for the MCAT and med school applications. Well, then… life happened. My husband (boyfriend at the time) was diagnosed with cancer a week before I returned from India. As soon as I got back, I moved to Baton Rouge to be there for him. (I thank God every day that he’s been in remission for three years now.) Once everything settled down and I began thinking about my career again, I was having doubts about medical school. I searched for months to find any job in Baton Rouge in the medical field in hopes experience would help me decide. I started working for Dr. Jong as a technician for primary care patients and contemplating my future career path. I felt like med school wasn’t right for me, but what was? Months went by and I kept seeing these vision therapy patients who would come in waving their honor roll certificate or excited because they just made an A in reading. Then, I finally realized the answer was right in front of me… The next day, I asked Dr. Jong if I could be trained to be a vision therapist and before I knew it, I had my first patient, found my career path, and haven’t looked back since. Without such a life changing event, I probably wouldn’t be living in Baton Rouge or know out about vision therapy in a state that has very few vision therapy clinics. In retrospect, I am thankful for God teaching me patience and I can confidently say that I have found my passion and my career.
Do you have a patient population that you enjoy best?
I really enjoy working with patients in the pre-teen/teen range (age 12-16). This is that awkward stage of development where I see many kids with low self-esteem or poor confidence and most times, it’s due largely in part to their vision. With these patients, I always make a point to verbalize any successes they have in the therapy room, no matter how big or small. As they start to gain confidence, my favorite question to ask them is, “How do you think you did on this activity?,” especially if they did really well. I’ve found that making them verbalize their successes out loud helps improve their confidence and helps them change to a CAN attitude instead of can’t. I love working with patients who need work with eye-hand coordination, whether it’s to help performance in sports or to just get them to a place where they are willing to participate in sports or games with other kids. It’s a very rewarding feeling when I have a patient tell me that they are trying new things and succeeding at them or when a parents tells me, “My child would have never been able to do that before Vision Therapy!”
I also began my career as a vision therapist in the state of Louisiana on the Northshore of New Orleans, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. Louisiana has such a diverse and fascinating mix of culture. For example, our readers may not know that Southern Louisiana shuts down for the week of Mardi Gras, or when the Saints win the Super Bowl. 🙂 How does your office meet the unique cultural diversity that comes from that region?
I absolutely LOVE living in Louisiana and love the culture here. It’s just something about the cajun food, Mardi Gras season, and the never ending list of excuses to get together with people that makes it such a great place to be.
First, the food. It’s crawfish season and that is a popular subject to talk about in the therapy room. This time of year, everyone is eating crawfish or talking about eating crawfish. So for my patients who want to get better at peeling that crawfish, I’ve got it covered! Everyone down here needs to know how to peel crawfish! Cajun food is a huge part of our culture here and it’s always a good day when Dr. Jong buys us jambalaya, red beans & rice, and gumbo for lunch.
Next, Mardi Gras. I grew up on the Northshore of NOLA and have experienced Mardi Gras every year since I was 4. It’s a big part of my life, especially since my husband and I met at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans (how does that happen? J), and I respect that it’s a big part of many of my patient’s lives. It’s time that people spend with their families and friends. I’m not sure if many readers know this, but Carnival Season is weeks long. There are parades weekends before Fat Tuesday so there’s plenty of time that I talk about Mardi Gras parades with my patients. Patients bring us beads and I wear beads to the office. Some patients are marching in parades or on the dance team in parades. Because Carnival Season is weeks long, our office is “open” on Mardi Gras Day, but it’s really optional. If therapists want to take the day off, they reschedule their patients. If patients want to go to parades, therapists reschedule their appointments. We are very accommodating during this time. It always makes me smile when I can assign Vision Therapy homework as catching 20 beads.
When I really sat back and thought about what makes our office unique, I think a major part of it is sort of the way of life down here–everybody gets treated like family. (No really, you can come to the family reunion even if you’re not “family”.) When you live in a place with that mind set, it’s easier to get the opportunity to see how vision therapy is really affecting patients’ daily lives. Last Mardi Gras season, my husband and I packed our book bag and set out for the parades. Walking through the streets of New Orleans, we ran into two sisters who were my patients and their parents invited us to watch some of the parade with them. My husband had never met them before, but next thing I knew, we were meeting their aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody. The cool part was that I saw how these girls were catching beads left and right, and interacting with their parents in a more mature behavior. They used to run away from the beads! Another patient of mine got a part in The Nutcracker play put on by the City of Baton Rouge and he asked me to go. Of course I did! It’s opportunities like this that allow me to see how Vision Therapy has positively affected the lives of my patients. It is truly rewarding to me and I love that I have patients who want to share that with me!
You recently completed your certification process in San Diego. Many candidates are getting ready to complete their testing and interview in Las Vegas in April, what advice would you give them about the final leg of this journey?
BREATHE! RELAX! The hard part is done. You studied and studied and wrote those papers and had those “ah-ha” moments. You do this every day at work. Your patients are now receiving better therapy because of all your hard work… and guess what? Now all you have to do is tell them what you do every day at work. YOU GOT THIS!
Can you briefly describe your learning process and the value of using your mentor along the way?
This learning process was different than any that I’ve had before, but in a good way. I was accustomed to the classroom setting and it was challenging to process all of this information in more of an application type way. It benefited me realize a new way of learning and it really helped me become a better therapist for my patients. I am so much of a ‘why?’ person that I loved learning the in depth aspects of vision and visual processing and how to apply those concepts to fit my patients’ needs. My mentor, Michelle Mott, was fantastic throughout this process–asking me question after question and pushing me to reach those ‘ah-ha’ moments that I probably would not have realized without her. In our office, the majority of our patients are those with learning-related visual problems so it was a huge benefit to have a mentor in such a large office who sees more patients with strabismus, amblyopia, and TBI. Not only has Michelle been able to help me with some of my patients, but she was also able to help another therapist in my office with these types of cases. To the candidates for certification, I strongly recommend that you stay in touch with your mentor and network with other therapists, especially if you come from a smaller office. Plus, it’s just a great feeling to talk to other people who are just as passionate about Vision Therapy as you are.
Many people describe COVD as “family”. What did you enjoy most about the meeting in San Diego last year?
I loved meeting everybody–my mentor, doctors and other therapists! After months of emailing my mentor, it was great to finally meet Michelle and put a face to the name that had been helping me tremendously through my learning process. I wouldn’t have learned so much if she hadn’t pushed me like she did and asked me a million questions to get my brain thinking. I loved meeting other therapists and getting new ideas for procedures or discussing how to be a better therapist for a certain patient populations. It was also really cool to see the doctors and therapists who wrote the books that I read while completing my certification. What I loved the most was to see that many people in one place as pumped up about vision therapy as I am!
Vision therapy has a broader presence today through social media and groups like VT Parents Unite. This is a great resource for parents just being introduced to vision therapy. How do you help parents understand the link between vision and learning? How do you encourage parents to invest in the VT process with their child?
Educate, educate, educate! Many parents come to our office and have no clue that their child’s grades can be affected when they have a visual condition. Most times, educating the parents about how vision and learning are related helps them understand the importance of their job role throughout their child’s Vision Therapy program. We have a great step-by-step process throughout the evaluation that helps us educate parents and lays the foundation for the therapists when we start working with each patient. When a patient meets with me or another therapist to test visual skills, our Vision Therapy Administrator meets with the parents to help explain how visual skills can affect the classroom. One of my favorite tools she uses is the “Up-Down Reader.” She will put the parent on the spot and have them read the card, which is written with the letters going up vertically and then down vertically. After, when the parents didn’t comprehend a word of what they read, she explains that when your eyes move in a way that they aren’t accustomed to, it makes it that much harder for your brain to comprehend the information. She also starts discussing for the importance of consistency with attendance and home therapy, which is vital for a Vision Therapy program to be effective. This allows the parents to see the broader picture that there is a visual condition affecting the child’s learning, and they will need to be a big part of the process in order to reach their potential.
When I start working with a patient, I always find out what the most important goals are to the parent and also to the patient. I have to ask the right questions to find out if there are any other problems that parents may not think are related to vision. Throughout the entire program, I point out the activities that are related to achieving these goals and why they will help a certain skill. As a therapist, I help connect the dots for the parents on how these skills will help improve daily activities. I may have to explain why the ATNR reflex could be contributing to poor handwriting or that leaning in too close will create eye strain. I also have to be that reminder to the parents and patients to utilize these same skills in daily activities. It sounds silly, but I’ve seen patients sit with correct posture when reading with lenses in therapy and then I’ll see them 5 inches away from a book they’re reading in the lobby. I’ve got to be the one that tells the parents to be the reminder for the child when they don’t realize what they are doing. Getting the parents to fully invest in the program like this will really set the kid up for success.
Any improvements that the parent or patient notices also helps keep them invested in the program. Every single session, I make a point to verbalize positive things that the patient did to the patient and also the parent. I feel like it’s just as important to verbalize it to parent as it is to the patient. This includes asking patients and parents about their performance in school, sports, or any other hobbies they have. Our programs take place over a long period of time and some parents forget what the child’s performance was like before they started Vision Therapy, and it’s my job there to serve as a reminder of this.
I enjoy this part of my job. I wish everyone knew about Vision Therapy and I want to share it with everyone. When I get the opportunity to educate another person on how vision and learning are connected, it’s a way for me to share my passion with others!
Some Closing Thoughts: It was a lot of fun getting to interview Lauren for this sit down, especially since we have a shared experience of practicing VT in Southern Louisiana. As you can tell from Lauren’s interview, she is passionate about her work and changing lives through vision therapy. Please join me in wishing Lauren and her husband all the best. And as they say in NOLA….Geaux Saints!!!! 🙂