George E. Foster
Passionate About Providing High-Quality Vision Care to Everyone
Dr. George Foster, Musokogee/Creek, is passionate about preventing blindness and providing high-quality vision care to all people. During the first, almost 30 years, of his career, he provided direct vision care to people in his own community. Since 1997, as dean of the Northeastern State University Oklahoma College of Optometry, he has provided leadership in preparing future optometrists. Working collaboratively with the Cherokee Nation and other community and university leaders, he and his colleagues created a curriculum that not only provides rich clinical experiences for the students but also helps to provide much needed vision care services for a largely American Indian population of about 90,000 people.
Foster still provides some direct patient care when he covers for colleagues at the clinics. His busy administrative life, however, doesn’t allow for time for regular patient care. Although he misses practice, he says, “It’s a real joy to be around the students and the outstanding faculty.”
A Full Plate
One of the many ways in which Foster interacts with students is by teaching two courses. In the communication skills course for first-year students, he focuses on the care of children and Elders and on the care of people with special challenges. He also helps his students understand traditional Native American patients. “We talk about empathy and how to put yourself in the moccasins of your patients,” he says. “We talk about getting on the same wavelength with our patients. We talk about eye contact, body language and the physical distance between doctor and patient.”
Foster also teaches public health to third-year students. “I give them the bigger picture and how patient care isn’t just about examining eyes. For example, I encourage them to work with their county and state health departments. We talk about working with community health centers and Head Start.”
Deciding on a Career
“When I was young I knew that I had strengths in social studies and in biological sciences,” says Foster. “During my undergraduate years at Northeastern State University I looked at dentistry, medicine, podiatry etc. and decided what I didn’t want to do. I eventually decided on optometry.”
Northeastern did not have a school of optometry in the mid 1960s so Foster earned his doctor of optometry degree at the University of Houston in Texas. Foster reports that his wife put him through school, a gift for which he has always been grateful.
Upon graduation in 1968, Foster joined a private practice in Bristow Oklahoma. The next year as part of the “doctors’ draft”, he was sent to a remote town in Maine. “I had 15,000 people to take care of, and I was the only optometrist within 500 miles,” he recalls. Foster says that the experience was like a residency program: “I’d see a problem that was new to me and run to the library to read about it or I’d phone for help.”
After completing two years of service, Foster and his family returned to Bristow where for almost 30 years he took care of five generations of people. The joy of caring for multiple generations of people and the responsibility of caring for people from birth to death are two things that Foster likes to share with his students.
Foster says that he was always on call but because of the nature of optometry, he seldom had to provide after hours care more than once or twice a week. “Overall I had control over my life. This meant I could be active in the community as a school board member, a chamber of commerce member and a church member.”
Foster was also active in the Oklahoma Association of Optometric Physicians and served as its president in 1980-1981. In addition, he was secretary-treasurer of the Oklahoma State Board of Examiners and a member of the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education. In 1989 the National American Optometric Association honored him as “Optometrist of the Year.”
A New Adventure
In 1997, the president of Northeastern State University asked Foster if he would serve as interim dean for six to nine months. Foster agreed. “My daughter is an optometrist. She was working with an ophthalmologist in Tulsa but agreed to take over for me for the interim period.
“Six months after I starting working as interim dean, I visited Bristow and on Sunday went back to the café where everyone in town eats after church. People said they missed me but they also told me how well my daughter was doing. Some people said that she gave them the best eye exam they’ve ever had!”
Foster was and still is very proud of his daughter, Dr. Kathleen Elliott, who eventually took over his practice.
Foster says that future optometrists have to have a sense of calling and a commitment to providing their patients and their community with a lifetime of vision care. He doesn’t believe that applicants need to have straight As, but they need to be ready to work hard. He strongly encourages them to shadow an optometrist so they are clear about the optometric physician’s scope of work.
See also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekUwwi2_Kc4
This article was originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Winds of Change. The cover artist, Brent Greenwood, Chicakasaw/Ponca, lives in Edmond, Oklahoma.
Dr. Foster retired in January, 2009.