I learned three important lessons from my experience at the Academy’s 2012 Congressional Advocacy Day:
- You cannot bring hairspray (or any other liquids or snacks for that matter) into the Senate building;
- The relationships we develop will have a profound impact on our careers and our lives; and
- There is so much work that needs to be done and all of us need to be a part of the process.
After attending the meeting along with 135 other Advocacy Day ambassadors (i.e., residents and fellows), I returned to Philadelphia, where I’m a glaucoma fellow at Wills Eye Institute. I am truly inspired.
When I was a resident at Howard University Hospital in Washington D.C., I would see the United States Capitol building every day on my way to work. It often occurred to me that, as I was carefully examining someone’s optic nerve, there would be people in the Capitol building making decisions that would significantly affect the course of my life and my career. The irony was that, despite my physical proximity, my life was completely separate from this decision making process — that is, until Advocacy day.
Advocacy Day is one of the few days of the year when I can put my 90 diopter lens down and participate in the political process. I, too, can go to the Hill and advocate for my patients, my peers and my profession.
No Wallflowers Allowed
This year, we lobbied for support for funding for the NEI and the Department of Defense Vision Trauma Research Program, for the Healthcare Truth and Transparency Act and for sustainable growth rate (SGR) reform.
During previous year’s meetings, I participated in Advocacy Day as part of the very large Washington, D.C./Maryland contingent. There were often several senior ophthalmologists at the meetings who did most of the talking; all I had to do was smile and nod. On the morning of this year’s meetings on the Hill, as I prepared to give my best smile and nod, I confidently reassured the other two ambassadors who were scheduled to be in my first meeting that they wouldn’t have to say anything. Boy was I wrong! It turns out that our first meeting consisted of three ambassadors and one “senior” ophthalmologist, and she actually expected us to actively participate in the conversation.
Our first meeting was with Elizabeth King, the senior policy advisor for Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Penn. We arrived early and came up with a game plan. We assigned each person in the group a topic to discuss, we rehearsed and the meeting went very well.
By the time we got to our second meeting, with Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., our act was well polished. I even had the chance to advocate for the Access to Front Line Health Care Act, which would allow ophthalmologists and other surgical specialists to participate in loan-repayment programs for ophthalmologists serving in underserved areas. This was an issue that was near and dear to my heart, and although it was not a part of the Academy’s main agenda, I was able to speak in support of this act because I was present.
It’s All Who You Know
Interestingly, the reason why we even got to meet with the congressman, and not one of his staff members, is because of David Pao, MD. Dr. Pao is the past president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ophthalmology, and was elected to be an alternate delegate for the last Republican convention. (Incidentally, he also is the proud father of one of the third-year Wills Eye residents.)
It was during his time as alternate delegate that he met and established relationships with many influential politicians, including Rep. Fitzpatrick. Dr. Pao has been quoted as saying, "I have a message…If I can talk to enough people, maybe I can get some people to listen."
Dr. Pao felt so passionately about the political process that he contributed money to OPHTHPAC and the Surgical Scope Fund on behalf of all of the Wills Eye Institute residents and fellows in attendance, which enabled us to attend receptions we otherwise would not have been granted access to. Dr. Pao even inspired me to continue to be actively engaged in the political process. Don’t be surprised if, one day, you see my name on a ballot!
Dr. Pao was just one of the many wonderful people I met during the meeting. I had the opportunity to talk to many leaders in ophthalmology, including other residents and fellows who were doing amazing things. I made new friends from all over the country. We even had an opportunity to visit some of the monuments while in D.C. Overall, it was a fantastic experience.
The Power of a Unified Voice
One of the most important lessons I learned was the power of a committed group dedicated to change. Case in point? Optometrists.
It was not that long ago that optometrists were lobbying for the right to put drops in patients’ eyes. However, they united and donated money to their political action committees, and today, in Kentucky, they can perform surgery.
While we might not have fixed the problems with the SGR in one day, a larger point remains: What would happen if we did nothing? Consider this: If the majority of ophthalmologists donated their time and money, and became engaged in the political process, maybe, just maybe we could get someone to listen.
Advocacy Day was a great opportunity to become engaged in the political process and establish new relationships that are political, professional and personal. Despite the fact that I had to do this all without hairspray, it was still a very worthwhile event. I am extremely grateful to the American Glaucoma Society for sponsoring me, and to the Wills Eye Glaucoma Department for allowing me to go.
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About the author: Thandeka Myeni, MD, is currently working on a fellowship in glaucoma at Wills Eye Institute. She did her residency at Howard University and completed her MD at the Medical College of Georgia.