“I don't let grass grow under my feet”
Hampshire-based optometrist Sarah Arnold tells OT about the 150-year history of her family practice
We have three practices.The one that I work in is in a town called Petersfield, a market town in the South Downs. It's a mainline train station to London Waterloo, so it's typical commuter belt: quite an affluent town, but it has pockets of poverty.
I was born here. It's a very well sought out area, because it's only about half an hour maximum drive to the coast. So, we're quite well situated: beautiful countryside, near London, near the sea, very family orientated.
In terms of patients, we get all sorts, from every walk of life, from people wanting bespoke spectacles to those wanting budget options. The one thing that most of our patients have in common is that they want high-end service.
The first practice opened in about 1860, in Edenbridge, Kent.The family also owned the Crown Inn, and a chemist. They moved to Southsea, in Portsmouth, in 1870. So that's really where we start the clock, about 1870.
My grandfather, his brother and their father learned to be optometrists via correspondence. We're coming back to this now, where you're in placement, and you're doing it as an apprenticeship. This is what the new education strategy is looking towards. It's sort of gone full circle.
My grandfather did his finals in 1926, then moved to Petersfield in 1927. His brother, James, went off elsewhere, and my grandfather stayed. So, it's been a long time, unbroken.
When I was three or four, I idolised my dad and my grandfather. They were my heroes, and I used to love visiting the practice. They used to run a clinic on a Thursday evening, and if I was really good, I could go along and see them at the end of clinic.
When you're a four-year-old, and your grandpa plays a trick on you and takes out a little glass eye from his pocket and shows you, you've got two options. Either you think "Wow, that's amazing," or you run. I thought it was amazing.
The whole thought of being able to look into somebody's eyes with a light and them goof around and look in my eyes, I just thought, that's what I want to do. I never deviated, my whole life. I've never changed my mind. It was in my blood.
My father still has his old daybook. In the daybook you write who you saw, and what they bought, and how much for. They only saw about three patients a day. There were lots of handmade tortoiseshell rims; some very early varifocal lenses. Very, very early scleral contact lenses. I still have my grandfather's prosthetic glass eye fitting set. They're all hand painted; they're absolutely beautiful. My mother, who was a trained St. Bartholomew's nurse, took over running the practice in 1974 with my dad when my grandfather died.
When I was 14, I went in as a Saturday girl.We were open on Saturday mornings; everybody shut on a Saturday lunchtime in those days. I did the cleaning, polished the spectacle frames, made everyone tea and coffee, and stamped the NHS forms. I think it was just before private sight tests were brought in, so there were reams of forms that needed practice stamps on. I did the post, the petty cash, and the filing, when it was all paper records.
My parents have got a photograph of me sitting at our first computer, trying to sort out the database
By the time I was 16, I was answering the phone, making appointments, and taking on a bit more responsibility in reception. My granny, Mrs Arnold Senior, also worked at the practice in reception until I was 15 or 16. She’s 100 in April 2021.
By the time I was 18, I was doing optical assistant work and helping with the computerisation. It seems like such a long time ago. My parents have got a photograph of me sitting at our first computer, trying to sort out the database.
I had lots of jobs when I was 18, because you did in those days. I worked for the practice in the holidays and on Saturdays, worked in two or three pubs, did my A-Levels, and then went to City University pretty much straightaway.
I graduated in 1993 and went to Bristol Eye Hospital to do my pre-reg, which was great.I got a really good grounding in dealing with people with sight loss. I became really passionate, before it was on the modern-day agenda of equality, asking "why should these people have a different life, just because they don't see the same as me?"
I used to help fit the contact lenses into the babies who had had their cataracts removed. You'd have tiny little babies, and often you could only get the lens in the eye when the baby was asleep. If that happened when they were breastfeeding, you were juggling a breastfeeding mum, and a contact lens, and a sleeping baby. It was great.
We did a lot of prosthetic contact lenses, for people with unsightly eyes. Lots of keratoconus, lots of pathology. It was a really great place to work, and I was there beyond my pre-reg.
Then I went down to the West Country, and worked for a small group of independents called Batemans. I worked there for a few years, and then my husband's career took him to Australia. I couldn't work out there, so I did some volunteering and some observation at the Vision Eye Institute in Melbourne. We came back less than a year later, because he was offered a job in Southampton.
I rang home and said, "Don't come to Australia, everybody, because we're coming home." My mum said, "I've just put an advert in Optometry Today for an optometrist. Would you like to apply?" That's how I ended up back. It wasn't in the plan. The plan was to stay in the West Country, but we ended up coming back here. Since 1997, I have been here.
My brother is a dispensing optician, and I work for him.He is the owner of the other two practices, and he helps to run the Petersfield practice. He and I learned how to repair NHS spectacles from a very young age. We were taking broken frames apart and putting them back together. We really learned from the ground up what to do.
I've had a lot of experience. I haven't got very many letters after my name because I've been busy raising a family, and that's been really important to me. Work-life balance was really important; raising the children. They're both at university now.
Every few years I've had a pre-reg. I love mentoring and supporting them, and helping pre-regs with hands-on education that they don't get elsewhere. I enjoy teaching for the love of teaching, but I also like people to be informed.
I've had a lot of experience. I haven't got very many letters after my name because I've been busy raising a family, and that's been really important to me
Over lockdown, I helped to produce some webinars for the Nystagmus Network. I met a couple of really wonderful people at the AOP Awards, and we've put together a few educational things. We've just done "What to expect in a High Street optometrist," when you've got nystagmus and have been discharged from the hospital system. I was involved in some of their professional webinars too.
I'm doing some expert witness training as well, but I'm early on in that. I don't let grass grow under my feet. You can have a portfolio career and be an optometrist all at the same time, and they all interlink really well.
My grandfather would just be beside himself with excitement if he could see what we can see in a human eye now
Computerisation of records has brought with it so any attributes, but also so many other layers in terms of cyber security, GDPR, all of that sort of thing. There's so much to learn. My grandfather would be beside himself with excitement if he could see what we can see in a human eye now. It's incredible.
I think what's lovely is that, as a body, optometrists are very proud; they're very supportive of each other as profession. That's really nice. You're all trying to do the same thing. You're all trying to get the best for your patient, and have a nice time while you're doing it.
Working with my dad has been a career highlight. He's retired now. He is an amazing man. He just had a brain like a planet; he kept so much information in there. That was really thrilling, just being able to pump him for information. I learned so much working with him. Not many people get to do that.