International Optometrist: Karen Sparrow

Karen Sparrow, MSc Public Health for Eye Care (PHEC) alumna (2016) and Training & Development Manager at Peek Vision, told us about her career as an optometrist in the UK and overseas, as well as the many projects she has been involved in, which eventually led her to study a masters at the School.

“As an optometrist I have been involved in eye care for more than 25 years. I started my career working in UK high street optical practice at Vision Express, and then as a Professional Services Manager, delivering the UK’s national training programmes for graduates and CPD/CE for optometrists. Following on from that I spent 9 years as the Professional Development Manager at the Association of Optometrists, a national membership organisation for optometrists in the UK. During this time I also volunteered for the UK eye health NGO, Vision Aid Overseas, delivering vision centre training, and capacity building in Africa. This voluntary experience lead to me volunteering with Addenbrooke’s Abroad in Botswana, through their LINKS programme, and visiting the International Centre for Eye Health (ICEH) at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Two friends and colleagues, Priya Morjaria and Claire Studley Scott, had already completed the PHEC masters course. This gradually led me towards thinking about taking a year off and doing the course myself to gain a solid, academic and scientific basis to my practical knowledge and experience gained over a decade or more.

The PHEC course was intense with full days of lectures and practicals Monday to Friday, followed by weekends and evenings of background reading and writing assignments. I put my life on hold for a year and turned down travel and social engagements. I was also commuting from my home in Kent, which meant early starts and long days. My PHEC classmates were very supportive, as were the ICEH team that ran the course. The additional resources, social get togethers and revision groups we created or participated in helped us get through. We also had a regular drop in sessions in the Refectory on Thursday lunchtimes when we took it in turns to provide cake or snacks and just chat about studying, our families and life in London.

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Visiting the Houses of Parliament with MSc PHEC classmates for an eye health debate. Left to Right: Yiwen Huang, Usha Dhanesha, Abdullahi Idris, Karen Sparrow.

 

My MSc PHEC has given me a solid basis for my work, and an underlying framework to strengthen my decisions and advice. For example, I was in Barcelona in May at the European Academy of Optometry & Optics, which I have attended many times before. This year I was able to assess the quality and content of the presentations, science and recommendations much more effectively and also to evaluate the ideas and new developments with a public health hat on.

The ICEH staff and invited lecturers are all at the top of their field. I can now contact them at any point for help, advice or even introductions to contacts in countries or fields in which I work or need information about – this is invaluable in my new role. Also, I am part of a network of PHEC alumni who are spread across the globe and work in government and senior roles in eye health in their respective countries.

My greatest achievement has been helping people and making a difference. I led a team to Uganda many years ago with Vision Aid Overseas, and we were carrying out eye tests in a primary school. I met a boy called Freddie and he was extremely short sighted. When we gave him spectacles and took him outside he broke into a broad grin and said, “I can see the mountains!” That’s what made me want to learn more about getting eye health to those with the greatest need and, ultimately led me to study at LSHTM.

Working with Peek Vision allows me to be part of ground breaking advances in how eye health is delivered and how we can connect patients to eye health services, diagnosis and treatment more effectively so fewer people are living with avoidabe blindness around the worls, whether they live in inner city London or rural Kenya.

My advice to current students is to work hard, do the reading and start your assignments early. Face time or Skype your family regularly. Remember it is only a year of your life and all your hard work will be worth it in the end”.

Images courtesy of Karen Sparrow. Feature image shows Karen Sparrow taking fellow optometrist and classmate, Leolyn Garcia to an optical exhibition – 100% Optical, ExCeL, London.

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