Veteran Brad Cary builds passion for ocular disease career in UMSL College of Optometry
Getting through undergraduate at Creighton University was undeniably difficult for Brad Cary.
He was not only studying to become a BSN-credentialed nurse in a rigorous program but also was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. That meant days that started at 5:30 a.m., learning everything from basic soldiering skills to marksmanship to battlefield first aid and much more.
Yet, the experience couldn’t compare to the intensity of the College of Optometry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“I thought nursing was tough, but optometry was definitely a more rigorous program,” Cary said. “The volume of information they present to you is very overwhelming, and then it’s really a matter of developing good study skills and habits to keep on top of things.”
That hard work paid off for Cary, who graduated from UMSL in May with a job lined up at Family Focus Eyecare, a practice in Columbia, Missouri. He’ll treat patients for routine eye exams, fit specialty contact lenses and manage ocular disease, which became a passion for Cary during school.
Optometry is Cary’s third career, after serving in the U.S. Army and then as a civilian nurse. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, he picked nursing and the military because of his family.
“I really liked the sciences and the medical field and definitely wasn’t the type of person to want to sit behind a desk,” he said. “I had an aunt who’s a nurse, and she always had good stories. It fit my personality, so I decided to go with it.
“I come from a military family. My grandpa, my dad, and my uncle were all in the army and hearing their stories made me more open to it.”
Being in the ROTC helped Cary pay for school while carrying out the family tradition. After graduating, he passed the NCLEX and joined the Army Nurse Corps, serving as an emergency room nurse.
He was active duty for four years before separating to pursue optometry school.
“There was never a dull moment, that’s for sure,” he said. “There was always something going on.”
At the beginning of his military career, Cary was stationed in San Antonio, where he met his wife, Sarah, an audiologist in the Army. She was working in an eyes and ears clinic, and as Cary started to pursue higher education, several of her coworkers suggested he shadow at the clinic.
Cary immediately knew he had found his match.
“I liked the entrepreneurial side of optometry, and I also appreciated that I’d still be continuing in the medical field,” he said. “Sometimes as an ER nurse, I felt overwhelmed by everything, and so the idea of specializing and just focusing on the eyes was appealing to me.”
After finishing his contract with the military, Cary took classes for his optometry prerequisites while working for the University of Colorado Health System. Then, in 2017, he applied to optometry school, deciding on UMSL because of its welcoming feel, starting school later that year.
Studying optometry felt totally different than nursing, yet there were moments of overlap. He felt that gave him an edge and furthered his interest in learning about ocular disease.
“I felt like I could continue to build off of my nursing background, adding different layers to my knowledge,” Cary said. “I saw a lot of disease during my nursing career in the ER, and it was very interesting to learn how different disease processes can affect the eyes.
“I definitely like seeing any medical complaints related to the eyes. It’s kind of fun, trying to solve a mystery and trying to find the correct answer to give the patient the best care possible.”
While in school, Cary especially enjoyed the fourth-year clinical rotations. He stayed in the St. Louis area, completing rotations at the St. Louis VA, Galanis Eye Care Center, UMSL Eye Care, the Family Care Health Center in Carondelet and Koetting Eye Center.
The Family Care Health Center proved to be especially interesting since the clinic serves a largely immigrant population, which involves interpreted exams in Spanish, Bosnian and Vietnamese.
“It’s different aspect that made it a little bit more challenging and rewarding to help individuals across different cultures,” he said.
Another thing that made school a bit more challenging – and much more rewarding – was expanding his family. During his second year, Cary and his wife welcomed twin boys, Russell and William. They welcomed their third son, Louis, during fourth year.
“Leading up to optometry school, I definitely was excited but also daunted by the school side of things,” he said. “I was definitely a little nervous about it, but luckily the faculty and my classmates were great.”
Working in small groups to study, his classmates were able to help each other out, share study materials and templates and support each other.
“It was very beneficial, and I’m very appreciative,” he said.
The convivial and helpful relationships among classmates and the other people in the College of Optometry is a big part of what Cary liked about the school, and he feels lucky to have built valuable friendships throughout.
Though he’s looking forward to the next phase in his life, Cary will look back on his time at UMSL warmly, as optometry school far exceeded his expectations.
“I’m very happy with my decision,” he said. “I’m so excited for the future, and I think there’s more opportunities in optometry than I thought there were when I started school. There are so many different areas of optometry to go into. Optometry is really growing on the medical side of things, offering more treatment for ocular disease, and it’s a great field that I’m so excited to be a part of.”
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