Opinion | Susan Knopf: A Summit County eye doctor has a heroic past | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Susan Knopf: A Summit County eye doctor has a heroic past

In Summit County, we’re accustomed to heroes in our midst. We pass Olympic champions, past and present, in the grocery aisle. Saving lives is something many locals do almost daily. Mickey Wilson, then a co-worker, miraculously rescued a man hanging by his neck from a ski lift just about a year ago. But I’ve never had my eyes examined by a hero. This was a first.

I stumbled upon the optometry practice through my vision insurance. Dr. Jessica Hegewald opened her office, Blue River Vision, near the Silverthorne Pavilion just a few months ago. What a happy surprise! Dr. J, the moniker her website suggests, is not a hero because of one thing she did, like Mickey, but through a series of heroic choices.

Let’s start with the how to pay for college conundrum. Some of us worked in fast food, waited tables or worked in stores. I had a variety of campus jobs, including reading for the blind. Dr. J. was a firefighter. Not just any firefighter, a wildland firefighter. She said she really liked the work and almost stopped there, but admits that “at 23 it’s hard to keep up with the 18-year-olds!” She credits her dad with telling her not to work with her body. Her dad was a shop teacher, and to earn some extra money he started a construction company. She says construction work really beat him up.

So when wildland firefighting in the Upper Snake River District of Idaho got to be too much, she switched to structure fires. She still had college bills and she says firefighting paid the best money. Of course there was the matter of convenience. The firehouse was across the street from her optometry college in Forest Grove, Oregon. (I’m sure lots of aspiring optometrists have made the same choice for just that reason, or maybe not.)

Her heroic choices continued as she chose to do an internship in Bethel, Alaska, serving the Yupik tribe by bush plane. Following graduation, Dr. J found her way to Colorado Springs, joined Elite Eye Care and the Colorado Air National Guard, and currently serves as the chief of optometry for the 140th Wing at Buckley Air Force Base. Dr. J’s choices before becoming an optometrist were pretty heroic, and the choices she makes today are even more so.

We all count on the National Guard to be ready when we need them. To maintain that high state of readiness, they go on practice missions called “Innovative Readiness Training.”

Missions can be civil engineering missions or, in Dr. J’s case, medical missions. Dr. J’s unit will deploy this summer to rural New York to address the medical needs of two underserved communities. Dr. J says, “The goal of the IRT is to provide real world training across services to help prepare people for deployment. For the community, the goal is to provide ‘no cost medical care.’”

Of course there is no free lunch. The cost of the program is borne by the training budgets of the National Guard units. Dr. J says, “Instead of doing the training within the unit and often simulated, we can actually use our skills and services to help communities. The care is provided at no cost to the community we are assisting.” Communities can apply to become the beneficiary of an IRT. The process matches training needs and community needs.

An estimated 380 people from the Air Force Reserve and Guard, Army Reserve and Guard, and the Navy Reserve will participate in this summer’s IRT, including 128 from Dr. J’s wing. Rural New Yorkers will receive medical, dental, optometry and veterinary services, all at no cost to them. One of the real challenges of such a mission is logistics. In an emergency, advance planning isn’t possible, but deploying on such missions trains the military personnel to handle varying circumstances. The IRT is scheduled for this July and hopefully we can follow up with some great pictures of happy and grateful citizens.

Dr. J. has represented the U.S. Air Force on several humanitarian missions both here at home and abroad. She rendered medical aid in far away places like Morocco and Mongolia, and closer to home for Hurricane Harvey victims in coastal Texas.

When you meet Dr. J, you might want to let this column be our little secret. She’s one of those humble, unassuming heroes … all a part of the job, ma’am. Do tell her office manager/optician/vision therapist Lawrence Hensley that you read it in the paper. He’s pretty interesting in his own right. Who knew vision therapy could improve your sports reflexes and reduce reaction time? Ask him about it. It’s pretty cool.

Susan Knopf is a Summit County resident who writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News. She has won awards from the Associated Press and United Press International for her news reporting.

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