OWL Interview with Dr. Constance Okeke


Constance Okeke, MD, MSCE
Glaucoma Specialist & Cataract Surgeon, CVP – VA Eye Consultants | Asst. Prof. of Ophthalmology, Eastern VA Medical School | www.DrConstanceOkeke.com

Why did you decide to join OWL?

Dr. Okeke:  If you’re in ophthalmology, it’s great to meet other ophthalmologists and clinicians, but it’s also great to meet non-HCPs, whether it’s those in the media world, research, industry, or another division – all whose work relates to eye care. I joined the OWL Development Committee because I thought it would be great to have access to members of leadership working for the companies whose products I use. I wanted to gain leverage through networking and expand in my role as a KOL. To me, OWL presented a picture of a unified group – and a very supportive group – one of people who were progressive in the field.

What does being an ophthalmic world leader mean to you?

Dr. Okeke:  To me, an ophthalmic world leader is someone who has the desire to make an impact in whatever way that they can – someone who understands that in order to make that kind of impact, one can’t do it alone. It’s important to have the ability to network with other people who are movers and shakers in their area of expertise within the ophthalmic world. I’ve had the opportunity to see that when one has an idea, in order for one to take that idea and further it to something that is an actuality, you need help and you need resources. When you are able to connect the dots between someone who has an idea and someone who has the resources or similar vision, it can then become a reality. I think that people who are ophthalmic world leaders understand the importance of this concept.

OWL prides itself in promoting diversity. What role do you believe diversity plays in leadership?

Dr. Okeke:  I think that diversity is important in leadership because leaders are people who inspire others, and sometimes, what can be very motivating is seeing someone who’s doing something that reminds you of yourself and/or is someone that you can relate with. When you see a leader, someone achieving and impacting in areas that interest you, it’s easy to connect even further with that person if he/she has any associations with you, like how  you look or being from the area where you reside, for example. Having a diversity in leadership increases the chances for people to make those important connections.

What is the biggest challenge in obtaining or holding positions of leadership in ophthalmology today?

Dr. Okeke:  One of the biggest challenges is just finding the opportunity or the platform to show your talents and strengths. Sometimes, the struggle is not having access to people who make those decisions of influence – the ones that open doors to new opportunities. Other times, it could be an internal struggle, such as not having strong confidence in yourself or the courage to say, “hey, I’m interested in this,” or, “hey, I have this idea,” and “hey, I’m not afraid to speak about it.”

Depending on the stage of your career, some challenges can be more present than others. Possibly early in your career, one can be a bit hesitant and unsure of how to get involved. It’s great when you have a mentor (or mentors) who help to open the door for you, like suggesting your selection on the podium, or provide an introduction to key influencers. Then once you get your foot in the door, you begin gaining experience. With experience comes confidence, and you start to understand that your limitation is only based on what’s inside your head. The sky is the limit if you believe it is so.

Then there are life challenges. If you have the privilege of getting married and starting a family, there are certain choices and priorities you have to make which can create limitations on what you’re able to do in your career. I know I faced that challenge having been a heavily academic-focused person in my early career after residency and fellowship training, being very involved with speaking, lecturing, and research. When I got married and had young children, I had responsibilities at home that kept me from being able to have the same freedom to travel as much as I used to.

But what happened was in having that challenge, I realized that there are other ways to still have a voice, still make an impact, and still feel like I’m contributing to the ophthalmology world. So, I started to write, and I started to create videos with a focus on what I was excited about, micro invasive glaucoma surgery. Ultimately, I learned that if we stay open-minded and think outside the box, it’s possible to overcome any challenge, but you do have to have patience and keep believing. It also helps when you have an amazingly supportive husband.

Of the leadership positions that you hold or held in the past, is there one that you’re particularly proud of?

Dr. Okeke:  Hands down, it’s being a mom. As a mom, you are a leader because you have a new generation that is underneath you and they’re looking to you in awe to guide them. Watching how my children are growing, developing, and understanding that they’re looking to me for leadership, is very inspiring and motivates me. My oldest daughter is actually very interested in ophthalmology, and it hasn’t wavered for the last three years. It’s exciting because she has accompanied me going to the clinic and seen the positive impact of patients happy with their visual outcomes, she sees me going to meetings, she’ll see photos or watch videos of mine on the internet, and she’s excited about ophthalmology because it has diversity. It’s also exciting for her to see me doing all this activity professionally, and still finding such joy in my role as mom – the one who can still attend school programs, help with science projects, tuck her in at night, and pray with her before bed.

It’s a pivotal time in the field of Glaucoma. What advice do you have for being an effective leader during changing times?

Dr. Okeke:  In order to be an effective leader during changing times, one must be courageous. Occasionally, the times call for stepping out of your comfort zone and into unknown territory, especially if you’re in the forefront. I think it’s important to identify as a lifelong learner, and as a lifelong learner you must continuously challenge yourself to grow. You might be doing it to take really great care of your patients or for your own self-awareness and growth. The more that you know, and the more that you experience, the more you can help your patients and fine tune what you think is best for each individual. Furthermore, the more tools you have in your pocket, the more you can feel confident in what you’re doing and can subsequently make your patients feel confident that you will take good care of them.

One of the projects I’m most excited about currently is launching on my iGlaucoma YouTube channel.  I’m creating a series of educational videos on the basics of minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS) and the various procedures that are currently available, called MIGS University. This series aims to educate in simple, structured and engaging ways on a topic that is one of the hottest right now in ophthalmology.  I hope it will help others in the field, from MDs, ODs, doctors-in-training, to even eye care staff who relate directly with patients. It is geared to help the wide range of people who are interested, but still trying to get a grasp on the quickly expanding field of MIGS.

One other piece of advice is to take time to think. With all the changes that are happening, and the efforts required to keep up with new technology, I think it’s important to take a step back and just think. Think about where you want to make an impact and what excites you. Put extra energy into that area and become a leader in that area for others. The field needs you, your energy and your ideas. People tend to do well in the areas that excite them, and if you take time to think, you can be creative, you can have visions, and with resources you can potentially put something together that could have an amazing impact!