A Sit Down – with Michael Dudley COVT
This post appears as part of my Sit Down series. Candid conversations with real people detailing their journeys and experiences with Vision Therapy.
A Sit Down – with Michael Dudley COVT
Interviewed by: Melody Lay COVT
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us how you are involved in developmental optometry?
My primary responsibilities are as a vision therapist (at AVTC). My passion is working with people who have behavioral challenges, are neuro-atypical, and kids who seem “hard to work with” to some. I love working with these people and constantly seek new ways to connect with them and learn how to best communicate with their personality and ability level. For example, several patients of mine are on the autism spectrum and are non-speaking, so I’ve had to adapt to their communication styles, whether it’s using gross-motor gestures or letter boards. It’s a challenge at times, but it’s worth it.
I also handle writing the reports for our developmental visual and cognitive skills assessments, making sure patients and parents get a clear understanding of what is happening with the patient’s visual system. It gives me an interesting window into all the parts that make up the whole of patient’s situation.
How did you first discover developmental optometry?
I learned about developmental optometry through a friend, Jared (Torgerson), whom I now work with. About three and a half years ago, Jared and I were catching up at a pub, and we got to talking about work. At the time I was working for a funeral home, helping families make arrangements for putting their loved ones to rest. I’ve always craved working in a profession that has a positive impact on the lives of others. The funeral home was meaningful work, but after helping arrange a funeral for an 8-year-old girl, my heart couldn’t take any more grief.
So I told Jared I was looking for a change, and Jared mentioned that his work was hiring. It was a providential coincidence. As he told me more and more about vision therapy, the more excited I became at a chance to work in a place where I could help enrich a person’s quality of life instead of providing them dignity in death. I went home, applied, and by the weekend I had an offer. I haven’t looked back.
Congratulations on your recent certification in Las Vegas last month. Can you tell us what the experience was like for you that week?
Exciting? Intense? Exhilarating? Borderline panic-inducing at times?
I was fortunate enough to get to stay in Vegas for a full week to take both the written and oral exams. It was a storm of last minute studying, adventuring through the city, trying to relax by the pool, taking said exams, waiting for results, getting them, and celebrating—and that was all before the actual conference began. COVD itself was an awesome experience filled with learning and making new connections, between concepts as well as between people.
The trip was the culmination of hours of preparation and study—writing papers, talking with doctors and therapists, preparing for each element of the process. It all came down to passing the written exam and the oral interview, which I did, and I’ve got to say, Vegas is a great town to celebrate in. And taking and passing the exams was a bigger rush than any of the gambling tables in all the casinos.
Can you briefly describe your learning process during your certification and the value of using your mentor and doctor through out the process?
Step one: realize that a wise person acknowledges how little he or she knows. Step two: after said acknowledgement, devise a plan for identifying and learning more about your areas in need of development. Step three: pick a dynamite mentor and doctor to help you realize that plan. Trust their guidance along the way.
I went into the process feeling a little cocky. I thought, “Hey, I’m good at this. This will be a cake walk.” I was way off. As I wrote my papers for the open book questions, it exposed my areas of weakness. Things I thought I knew but needed to know better, things I had considered but hadn’t fully understood, and some things I had little to no knowledge of—it all came to the surface, and it wasn’t always comfortable. However, I had a great team behind me to help me learn, practice, and become a better, stronger therapist.
It was exhausting at times, but even in the midst of the process I began reaping benefits from the learning. After a matter of weeks I found myself performing therapy differently, asking new questions of myself and my patients. Thinking differently. It was such a transformative experience, and one you can start feeling right away.
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?
The clichéd adage states that “the eyes are the window into the soul,” but I think it would be better phrased as “vision is the gateway to the mind.” So much of how we perceive and experience the world around us comes through the visual system, whether in the shape and form of a tree or in the words and symbols contained within a book. If the visual information is compromised or distorted, or if it takes pain and fatigue to gather that information, it can break down the learning experience and rob the patient of all joy in doing so. Patients and parents alike must understand and appreciate this.
To help them along their way, I seek to continually teach the parent as well as the patient the how and why of how things work in vision therapy, and how each element of vision therapy will translate into real world use. Whether I use explanations, diagrams, or goofy cartoons, I strive to make it an understandable, accessible, and fun process.
If I asked your colleagues to describe Michael in the therapy room, what would they say?
Oh man, I’m not sure if I’d want to know! Things get pretty wild and crazy at times. I’m a firm believer that if your patient can trust you and have fun with you they will put more positive energy into the process and have better success in the long run. Whether that takes performing the entire session pretending to be a robot or talking in one of my ridiculous, silly voices, I’ll do just about whatever it takes to help my patients learn and improve their vision and have a good time while doing so.
Last October, in San Diego, Dr. Nancy Torgerson brought her entire staff to COVD. I attended the two-day class and left impressed with Dr. Torgerson as a leader of her staff. The level of teamwork and camaraderie in your office is apparent. How do you maintain that level of closeness and what is your “seat on the bus”, as Dr. T. describes it?
AVTC feels like a family and the closeness develops pretty naturally because of it. The thing that unites us across differences in personality, age, gender, background, whatever— is that we genuinely care about people. That’s a key element to being a successfully doctor, therapist, or patient care coordinator. When you have that authentic passion for helping others, you treat not only your patients that way, but also your coworkers.
Whether I have a joke or a frustration, there’s always someone willing to listen. Our office hosts bridal and baby showers for each other. We attend the funerals of our coworkers’ loved ones as well as the weddings. We go to bars and ballgames together. We have a fantasy football league and smack talk each other. We are unified by a common purpose, and that unity through common values makes it easy for our relationships to extend beyond the borders of the practice. My seat on the bus is right next to everyone else, trying to make their bus ride a little easier, either by making them laugh, listening to their stories, or helping solve tricky dilemmas that come up in the therapy room.
For offices that aspire to develop that atmosphere in their office, what advice would you give?
One of my favorite quotations on that subject comes from the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” I believe that when people are unified by a common purpose and thirst for serving others, those actions and intentions create the atmosphere, and from there it will grow. When you thirst for that endless, immense sea, you want the strongest ship and a crew you can trust so you can keep sailing farther, and farther, and farther.
Some Closing Thoughts – As you can tell, Michael’s creativity, enthusiasm, and compassion as a therapist shine through in this interview. Thank you, Michael, for taking time to do this interview. Wishing you and your co-workers all the best! 🙂