I was not fully sure what to expect from Advocacy Day. Meeting with members of Congress, members of our Academy, no clinic, influencing change in how our patients are cared for … all sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I arrived Wednesday evening for the briefing dinner, probably more exhausted than most. I was running on two hours of sleep after a ruptured-globe repair the night before, followed by a busy clinic. I listened to Academy President Russell Van Gelder, MD, give a stirring speech on the significance of advocating for our patients and profession. This was followed by an Advocacy Ambassador reception, where we were warmly welcomed by the YO committee. As I drove home for some much-needed sleep, I thought about what impact our visit would have, how it would be received … and what time to set my alarm.
As a Howard University ophthalmology resident, we have the great fortune of living in the nation’s capital. One might assume, given the proximity, that we would be highly familiar with the inner workings of "The Hill." Yet the marble steps of that edifice are just as intimidating as doing our first capsulorhexis. The idea of petitioning Congress to consider legislation that affects the way I practice medicine seemed daunting.
Thursday morning we filed into the meeting area, where we were grouped at tables according to our home state. I made my way to the front and found Maryland. We exchanged introductions, and once our morning speakers were finished, we strategized our one-mile hike to Congress. Once at the Senate building, we found our way to the first office and discussed who should take the lead on which topic.
As the first meeting got underway, I listened to senior physicians speak passionately about how EHR among other things has affected their respective practices. By the second and third meetings, I found myself chiming in to say why NIH/NEI funding is important or how the Truth in Healthcare Marketing Act calls for more transparency. I felt emboldened, ready to talk to anyone who would listen.
After our meetings on the Hill concluded, we went to a DC hotspot called MatchBox for a celebratory meal. There an eclectic group of physicians from different walks of life and levels of training broke bread over the shared conviction that taking care of the eye health of our patients is and always will be our priority.
Our conversation was as rich as the flavorful marinara sauce; we discussed the challenges of starting your own practice and even how to have a successful marriage. We compared stories, laughed about similar circumstances at our home institutions, and by the end of the meal we exchanged emails and phone numbers. The camaraderie was palpable.
After we Uber-ed our way back to the Hotel, I met my co-residents to see how their day had gone. While we all learn and train at Howard University Hospital, we live in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, so we found ourselves in different groups. We discovered we each left with a similar sentiment of empowerment.
That evening, our keynote speaker Mara Liasson, from NPR, spoke poignantly and prophetically about the political climate. Her satirical style and quick wit were matched by her broad knowledge of current and past affairs.
The next morning a new pilot session took place: The L.E.A.P. Forward program for advocacy ambassadors, which covered leadership, engagement, advocacy and practice management. This session proved one of my favorite components of the Mid Year Forum. The room was filled with residents, fellows and true giants of ophthalmology; legends in their own right. Not only were these rock stars of ophthalmology approachable, they seemed as excited to be there as we were to meet them. They each took time to share their personal stories of how they got to where they are today, often by a series of happenstance events.
The common themes were: be available and ready to work, find your passion, and the future is limitless. In the case of Michael Brennan, MD, Academy international envoy and past president, it just might lead him to the moon on the next Virgin galactic space flight.
If Advocacy Day showed us that we can play a vital role, the L.E.A.P. Forward program showed us exactly how to do that. We ultimately learned how to cultivate our talents. We as residents and physicians have a voice and a fresh new perspective, but we can't change the world until we get plugged in.
This year 159 residents and fellows sponsored by 41 societies and training programs showed up ready to advocate for our patients. We were there to petition for the things that will impact our patients and our practice not only now but well into the future. Those 159 residents and fellows said they were ready to step up and show up. We are all advocates, and if we don't advocate for our patients, then who will? We now have the title of ambassador. To whom much is given, much is expected. I encourage everyone to find your passion and create that niche where you can advocate for the things most important to you and your patients.
Special thanks to the Academy for allowing residents like myself to serve as ambassadors; to the individual state ophthalmology societies that generously sponsored numerous residents’ participation in Advocacy Day; to the home institutions that allowed residents and fellows to take time away from their hectic schedules; and finally to the Howard University ophthalmology program — our program director, Leslie Jones, MD, and our chair, Robert Copeland, MD, who made it possible for all of our residents to attend the 2015 Mid-Year Forum.
About the author: Erica Alvarez, MD, is a PGY2 resident at Howard University in Washington, D.C.