When almost every applicant interviews with the hope of being admitted into the UMSL College of Optometry, they do so with the belief that they ultimately want to help people . . . to make a difference in someone’s life. Certainly, when the College was established in 1980, there was a need for optometrists in this region, especially in disadvantaged areas. Since that time, our graduates have helped meet that need while fulfilling their original purpose for entering this profession. Every once in a while, however, there is that special individual who goes far beyond the expected . . . who with great empathy and compassion helps a population greatly underserved and in need . . . and he accomplishes this against all odds. Meet Eric Stein, OD (’88).
Dr. Stein became interested in optometry while at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. With many friends returning to the St. Louis area in combination with the class size, UMSL was his first choice. He wasn’t disappointed with his decision. “I feel I received an excellent theoretical understanding combined with unique clinical practice. More importantly, it made me aware of the need to grow and evolve clinically after I graduated. While at UMSL the profession was changing, and we were providing certification classes for both diagnostic and therapeutic agents. Since we were being trained to diagnose and manage eye disease, it was unique to see there were people still practicing without dilation! But even now, the evolution is fascinating. Visual field machines were just becoming available. Today I cannot imagine practicing without a retinal camera and OCT!”
Upon graduation in 1988, he returned to his home state of Arkansas and opened a private practice. The close friendships he made with his UMSL class members – and there were many – helped him as they would often compare notes on business, practicing optometry, and all other hurdles that he would successfully jump over during those early, lean years. Those years in private practice were very rewarding and fulfilling for Dr. Stein.
In 2010, his entire world was turned upside down and was nothing short of a nightmare. “I developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome (a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves; it can result in total paralysis and has no known cure) in a very aggressive state. It progressed quickly, and the decision was made to induce a coma and place me on a ventilator. I was told it would be for a few days. Imagine my shock when I finally woke up six weeks later and discovered I was without a lower leg on my left side. The prognosis was not good. I was a poorly controlled diabetic and morbidly obese. I was told I would not get out of bed again. I spent three months in ICU, followed by three months in a rehab hospital. After that I continued my physical therapy in a nursing home for another six months. Through this year I had both volunteer and paid coverage to keep my office open. I resumed practice a year to the day I left. I was continuing therapy and basically restarting my practice.”
Unfortunately for Dr. Stein, who had already escaped the clutches of death once, his recurring nightmare version of “yesterday once more” was re-enacted. “At this point, Labor Day 2013, I was out of the wheelchair, and walking independently or with a cane. My weight had ballooned to 375 lbs and my physical therapist was very concerned about both the health and mobility issues this was presenting. He suggested I take up bicycle riding, and I bought a three-wheeled bike. My first time out, I flipped the bike over on top of me. Due to incompetent care, I developed a mucormycosis fungal infection. When I was finally admitted to the hospital, I was told by the infectious disease doctor that no one survived this infection. At that point I decided to sell my practice. Six weeks and seven surgeries later I was discharged from the hospital. Part of my treatment had included an experimental drug, and I was told I would be unable to work again. I spent the next three years doing some fill-in work. I also had a gastric bypass that allowed me to shed 185 pounds, and maintain a normal A1c without medications.”
The dilemma for Dr. Stein was he still had a passion for providing eye care . . . for serving the needs of others. It was at that time that he was contacted by a recruiter hiring for temporary vision care services to be provided on a Navajo reservation in Arizona (Navajo Health Foundation – Sage Memorial Hospital). He arrived in Ganado, Arizona, prepared – so he thought – for a routine three month fill-in assignment. As with everything else in the past decade of his life, it did not go as expected. “Sage services the very poor, rural community. The nearest grocery store and restaurants are an hour away. We do not even have a physical address. As my three months ended, they asked me to extend. I was working with another full-time OD who was nearing retirement. After a year of temporary employment, I was offered a full-time position. Since then the other OD has retired, so I am now the director of the Eye Clinic. This is a unique population. Diabetes is rampant and control is poor. I usually see five glaucoma patients per week. However, the equipment is state of the art, and this facility is always ready to invest in equipment to improve patient care.”
It is apparent that his faith has helped him, as friend and classmate, Dr. Mary Murphy (’88) reflected, “Eric and I share the same faith, so I know how important his faith played a role in the service side of optometry for him. It’s no surprise to me that he’s devoting his time to service God’s people and is getting great joy from it.” Dr. Barbara Brown (’88) agreed, “His illness just a couple years ago, with bizarre outcomes imposed by still stranger circumstances, might have sunk an ordinary person. Not so with Dr. Stein and his unwavering belief in God’s plan for him. After months of recovery, including learning to walk again, he turned this into an opportunity to serve in an Indian Health Service location.” This is exactly what Dr. Stein believes is his purpose in life. “During many dire hours of my illness I relied on the faith that I was being spared for a reason. I believe this is my purpose, as I continue to grow professionally, personally and spiritually on a Navajo reservation in the middle of nowhere.”
Dr. Eric Stein has stared death in the face . . . twice! He took the blessing of life that he has been given and – combined with an unshakable faith – decided to make an even greater difference in the life of those who desperately need him. In what could be termed a 52 week per year permanent Volunteers of Optometric Services to Humanity mission, he continues his dedication to serving a population that, without him, would likely never receive eye care.