Obituary: Karen Sparrow
“If we contributed half as much as Karen with even just a dash of her enthusiasm we would all be proud”
18 January 2022
Eye care professionals have paid tribute to optometrist Karen Sparrow following her death on 4 January 2022, at the age of 53.
Sparrow graduated from the University of Wales in Cardiff in 1989. She worked as a High Street optometrist before progressing into practice management, regional training and pre-registration optometrist supervision.
Sparrow became the professional services manager at Vision Express in 1998, overseeing the company’s education, graduate, recruitment, and pre-registration training programmes for more than nine years.
During this time, she completed research placements at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, and the Kingston Royal Eye Unit, Surrey.
She was the head of professional development at the AOP for eight years, supporting, mentoring and advising optometrists at all career stages.
She epitomised community spirit in every part of her life
Optometrist and clinical editor for multimedia at Optometry Today, Ceri Smith-Jaynes, described Sparrow as a person who set the standard for others to live up to.
“She was kind-hearted, generous, interesting, good-humoured and resourceful,” Smith-Jaynes shared.
“When she was working at the AOP, she gave her mobile number to all the optometry students and told them to ring if they were ever in trouble. She had a positive influence on my life and many members of her worldwide ‘optical family,’ as she called us. She was the living embodiment of the rising tide that lifts all boats,” Smith-Jaynes said.
Optometrist Andrew Tompkin recalled: “I remember her as a huge bundle of energy, always exuding total enthusiasm in all the activities and tasks she undertook. Karen will be missed.”
AOP chairman, Dr Julie-Anne Little, remembered Sparrow as an advocate for the profession, who has touched the lives of many.
“At heart, her interest was to help other people and spread the skills of optometry and delivering eye care. If we contributed half as much as Karen with even a just a dash of her enthusiasm we would all be proud - and I feel honoured to have known her and moved by her positivity and focus on the good things in life right to the end,” she emphasised.
Sparrow became a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers (WCSM) in 2001, moving up to the Livery in 2005.
A tribute from the WCSM described Sparrow as a “vital and active force” within the membership committee.
“Her efforts have borne fruit in recent years in an increasingly diverse and international membership,” the WCSM highlighted.
“Even when the decline in her health meant she could not herself take part in the 2021 Lord Mayor’s Show, she was at the centre of the social media hub, pulling the team together and posting messages across all channels from her hospital bed.”
The WCSM shared that Sparrow faced her ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2017 with “the same character, and desire to understand and explain, that she brought to every challenge.”
“Every day for Karen presented an opportunity to delight in new discoveries as well as finding more ways to pass on her own significant knowledge. She epitomised community spirit in every part of her life and her loss will be keenly felt within the Company and right across the world,” the WCSM highlighted.
Master of the WCSM, Ian Davies, described Sparrow as “one of the most selfless, enthusiastic and positive people I have ever met.”
“She made a real difference to vision through many organisations and countries. We will miss her presence, but we know that her spirit will remain with us,” Davies emphasised.
After Sparrow started volunteering for Vision Aid Overseas (VAO) in 2007, she completed 13 overseas assignments – first as a team member then as a team leader.
VAO member and former trustee, Peter Mitchell, shared that Sparrow’s attention to detail and consideration of the ‘on-the-ground’ needs of teams working in countries enabled VAO to develop exemplary training programmes.
“On top of that she was always a joyful presence to work with and be around, with a resilience to tackle and rise above the many challenges of delivering the training programme in a diverse range of venues with a smile on her face,” he recalled.
Niall Hynes began volunteering at VAO on Sparrow’s suggestion while a student representative on the Optometry Today editorial advisory board.
“There really are no words that can fully do Karen the justice her life deserves,” Hynes said.
“As a volunteer, she supported me throughout and encouraged me to become a team leader. She was always available for advice before, during, and after an assignment.”
In 2017, Sparrow joined the start-up, Peek Vision, which was then in the early stages of developing smartphone technology to improve eye health services in low and middle income countries.
Chief executive, Dr Andrew Bastawrous, shared that Sparrow had a “profound effect” in everyone who she worked with.
“She was the first to praise others' achievements but always remained humble about her many well-deserved accolades. Karen always found ways to show she cared, from unexpected gifts or her famous home-made jams brought to the office, to her indefatigable encouragement and support of others when it mattered most,” he said.
“Her courage in the face of adversity, her kindness in the midst of pressure and her absolute commitment to improving the lives of others will long live on," Bastawrous highlighted.
Sparrow’s contribution to optometry will be recognised during a House of Delegates session at the upcoming SECO 2022 Congress (March 9-13, New Orleans).
Sparrow’s family have set up a fundraising page in her memory with donations supporting Vision Aid Overseas and Ovarian Cancer Action.