On the ground

Coronavirus: on the ground in Newbury

Valarie Jerome opened her independent practice in November. Her father died in January. Then, in March, a global pandemic hit. She shares her story

UK map Newbury

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic transforms the way optometrists practise, OT is sharing the experiences of optometrists across the UK. If you, or a colleague, is interested in sharing your story please get in touch by email.

I opened my independent practice in Newbury last November. I have worked really hard my whole life, sometimes six or seven days a week, seeing patients every 15 to 20 minutes. I wanted something with a slower pace where I could offer a bespoke service and offer a small range of spectacle frames that are unique to the High Street of Newbury. I have just finished my IP course with Ulster University and I was due to start my hospital placement in May, which has now been postponed.

My father died in January and I had to go back to America. The practice did well at the end of January and February was a great month. Then March hit. I supplement a large part of my takings from my locum work and there were fewer days on offer. By 16 March, even though it wasn’t that busy, I started limiting the number of people in the practice because it is only around 550 sq ft. By the middle of the week, the pulse of the town had slowed. In the café next door, I saw the long faces. The staff had family in Italy and France and knew what was coming.

I was getting as much information as I could over the phone before patients arrived for their appointments. When they did arrive, they would sit in the exam chair and I would sit by the door to the consulting room. I then made the decision that I would close because I felt that it had become unsafe for my staff, my patients and me. It was a tough decision. Everywhere else in town was still open. I wondered if it would look like I was giving up. But I couldn’t worry about any of that, because I had to do what was right.

It is OK to be anxious or depressed or worried. It is OK to feel all those things. We don’t have to always have a stiff upper lip

Dr Valarie Jerome, independent optometrist

I have started doing video consultations and I am selling eye care products online. This situation has pushed me into a corner and made me see what I am made of. I have reinvented myself in a way that I never would have if I was working six days a week. I have looked at the finances again. I am also now working with an American company as their UK representative for a continuing education programme.

The tough thing was shutting the door and letting my staff go. Harder than not knowing whether I could pay my mortgage – telling two members of staff that they don’t have a job anymore. It was a huge blow. It bothers me every day.

I think the future of the profession is definitely altered for the next few years, if not forever. I think the big thing will be ‘How do we calm people’s fears?’ When someone comes in to see me, I want to make them feel comfortable and relaxed. Anxiety levels are already high when someone comes for an eye exam; they are worried about finding out they have an eye condition or that they have to buy new glasses. Now they have that worry of whether the glasses are clean or if the optometrist is getting too close. How will that affect their willingness to come into practice? I think that will be a big hurdle in terms of the psychological impact of this.

It is a 50-50 thing whether we will be able to open again. I am supposed to get a grant from the Government and I have applied for a line of credit from the bank. I am preparing for the worst and I am hoping for the best.

My friend and neighbour suffers from macular dystrophy, which she has lived with for the past two decades. She said to me that ‘You have to focus on what you can control. I realised that 20 years ago when my body didn’t let me do all of the things that I wanted to do.’ I think once I realised that, it did help me. I feel like there is only so much stress a body can take. I was still grieving my father. Then to lose a business, that felt like a baby, and not be able to provide for my family, I reached a certain threshold where I couldn’t stress anymore.

Optometrist Dr Valarie Jerome in front of her Newbury practice

I never realised how much of my identity is wrapped up in helping people, in doing eye exams and helping solve eye problems, until I was forced to stop doing that. I miss it. I have realised that there is more to life than just my work. I have jumped on a trampoline now more than I have in my whole life, I have played with barbies and I have made slime at 1.30pm in the afternoon on a Thursday. It is teaching me to stop and smell the roses.

I am a single director of a limited company but I am not rolling in the dough. My husband is a self-employed carpet layer. We are both in the position now where neither of us has any income. There are three children in this family, a mortgage, two cars and two dogs. We still have bills that need to be paid and we need to feed ourselves. We are all in this together, but let’s recognise that it is OK to be scared. It is OK to be anxious or depressed or worried. It is OK to feel all those things. We don’t have to always have a stiff upper lip.

I am trying to use this time productively, but I am also trying to remember that I don’t have to learn a new language, take up running and worry about my four-year-old doing every one of her homework assignments. I am trying to focus on what I can control, not what I can’t.

• As told to Selina Powell.