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updated: 5/29/2013 9:39 AM

Aurora woman aims to improve future vision in her hometown

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Vision isn't something Laura Martinez thought much about until her diabetic mother got sick.

The 27-year-old can see fine herself and had never been to an optometrist.

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But caring for others, especially in the realm of health care, always had interested the East Aurora High School graduate.

Martinez was a nursing major at Aurora University when her mother's diabetes flared, leading doctors to suggest she follow up with an eye doctor to make sure her vision was not affected.

Helping her mother through this experience was the connecting factor for Martinez, bringing her interests in health care and helping people together with the passion for vision that now drives her future plans.

"They talked to us about all the different effects it can have on your eyes," Martinez said, speaking about her mother's diabetes. "Interesting things that can happen to you that I wasn't even aware of."

Enthralled by the field of eye care, Martinez switched her major to a broader pre-med track, studying health sciences with a minor in chemistry. She switched her career goals, too, now aiming to open her own optometry practice in Aurora, working with Spanish-speaking patients who otherwise may not seek care because of language barriers or costs.

"I'm planning to go back to Aurora and be able to treat the community and just the area where it needs it the most," said Martinez, who is fluent in Spanish. "If I'm there, I can help them and speak the language they speak."

Five years after receiving her bachelor's degree, Martinez completed her eye medicine training at the Illinois College of Optometry, graduating May 18. She now has knowledge of the way diseases like her mother's diabetes can affect the eyes, and she speaks fluently about issues like retinal detachments or visual edemas.

"It can get pretty gruesome," she said. "You have to get a yearly checkup if you're diabetic and control your blood sugar in order to prevent any damage to the back of the eye."

The importance of yearly checkups is another message she hopes to convey to future patients in Aurora, saying Hispanics often are not aware of the recommendation to have an annual vision check. Her dream of running her own business in Aurora also includes a special component -- a pediatric practice.

"When I had my pediatric rotation, I fell in love with the kids and I really enjoy working with them," she said.

Before Martinez decided to pursue an optometry degree, she attended a program called Focus on Your Future that helped cement her interest.

She enrolled during the program's first year in 2008, and got a weeklong taste of student life on the Illinois College of Optometry's Chicago campus.

"It gives you exposure. It brings out what optometry is all about," Martinez said. "It reinforced that I made a good choice."

Designed for minority students who are underrepresented in optometry, the program gives a chance to shadow optometrists and experience classes. Students of Martinez's Hispanic heritage make up only 4.4 percent of those studying optometry, while black students make up only 3 percent, according to the college.

When Martinez received her diploma May 18, she became one of the first three Focus on Your Future participants to graduate from the college. Of 96 participants, 12 will have enrolled at the school come fall.

With her credentials in hand, Martinez now heads to Florida for a one-year residency at Nova Southeastern University. But the trip south is just a pit-stop on her journey to improving future vision -- both literally and figuratively -- in her hometown.

"The area where I want to practice is populated by a lot of Hispanics and sometimes there are a lot of us that don't go to school," she said. "Sometimes you just need to see someone that's done it before."

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