“I’d like to think it has made me a better optometrist”
Bobby Sarvat Fida on the value of balancing hospital and High Street work, and providing eye care in a high security prison
Bobby Sarvat Fida
11 August 2022
A-levels are hard.
It’s a horrible time to try and make a decision: you’ve got the pressure of trying to do well, and you’ve also got to decide what you want to be when you grow up. I wasn’t very good at meeting that challenge.
I’ve always been focused. Studying wasn’t a problem, but trying to work out what I wanted to do was hard. Nobody in my family had been to university up until that point, so I knew I wanted to go, I just didn't know what I wanted to do.
Teaching was something I wanted to do from probably when I was about five. But every time I mentioned that to a teacher, they’d say, “no, you don’t want to be teaching.” I was talked out of it. By the time I was doing my A-levels, I was thinking, “I need to find something different. There’s a group of girls doing law. That’s what I'm going to do as well.” I didn’t explore any other opportunities. I’d never heard of optometry.
When I went into law, it was a shock that I had six or seven contact hours per week, and the rest of the time I had to read.I thought, "Where’s the structure?" I had a great year socially, but a rubbish year academically because I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted to be right or wrong, not in the grey area. Quickly I thought, “I’ve made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. This is not me at all.”
Within the three weeks of being at Sheffield, I rang Bradford University and asked about the chances of transferring to their optometry course.They said “We’ve already gone over our cohort this year, but we can almost guarantee with your grades you’ll get a place next year. Come next year and we’ll give you first dibs.”
When I started optometry, I remember thinking, “This is it.” It just clicked, and I knew this was what I needed and wanted. It was nice to have the security to know that once I finished, I would be guaranteed a job. That was definitely a pull into the profession.
When I started optometry, I remember thinking, “This is it.” It just clicked, and I knew this was what I needed and wanted
At that time, it was challenging to get a pre-reg in a hospital.I thought, “They don't give out many places, I might as well have a go.” I was fortunate to have two interviews at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, and I was offered a place in both.
Only 30% of pre-regs passed their pre-reg in the first go at that time, and it was normal to resit two or three of your 10 modules. One of the things pre-regs were failing on was the routine eye test. In a hospital you don't do routine – Monday morning can be cataracts; Tuesday afternoon might be glaucoma. So, you’re very good at cataracts, but connecting it all and making it flow doesn’t come naturally to a hospital pre-reg.
I thought, “I don’t want to be in the same camp as the people who keep failing their routine.” They give you half a day to go out into a High Street practice, so I said, “That’s not enough. I want to do a full day.” I found my own placement, and alternated between two local practices. One was miles away. I used to drive an hour to get there, but I thought “at least it gives me a full day to learn how to be what I’m going to be at the end of this. Not just to pass my exams, but to be good at what I'm doing.”
I had a bizarre experience on results day.The exams were vivas – you were questioned by a panel and asked to perform certain skills. Every section went well. I thought, “worst case scenario, I’ll have failed one or two, which is fine.” When I went in to get my results, they said, “You’ve failed three, you’ll have to come back in August and resit.” I was mortified.
One that they said I’d failed was contact lenses. You become very good at contact lenses if you’re working in a hospital, because you deal with lots of complicated patients. I was surprised, because I’d had a conversation with my contact lens examiner and she'd been really positive. We had a rapport, so it didn't make sense. When I came out I was crying, and that examiner walked past and said, “Are you alright?” And I said “No. You failed me in contact lenses. I thought I’d done well.” She looked confused, and walked away.
You become very good at contact lenses if you’re working in a hospital, because you deal with lots of complicated patients
It turned out they’d given me the wrong slip. They’d got me muddled up with somebody else. So, I was thinking “I’ve only failed two. Contact lenses was a mistake, but they can't have made a mistake on all three.” But they had, and when they checked, I had passed all 10. I’d already phoned my mum and my supervisor and told them that I was resitting, and I had to ring them again.
It was never my intention to go into High Street practice.I loved hospital optometry, but there was no full-time job in Leeds, and I wanted to stay at home and work locally because I’d been away for a while. There was one day available, so I committed to that.
One of the hospital optometrists also used to work at Specsavers as a locum. She had a conversation, and they created a role for me locally between two practices, and I started working there four days a week. That was good, because it taught me routine practice. I still had my one day at the hospital, so it was nice to do both.
Because of the three people I worked closely with at the hospital, I knew I wasn’t going to do five days on the High Street. They didn’t, and they were brilliant. I knew doing at least two different things added to their skills, made them more interesting, and made them love their work. If you are doing one thing it can become a little bit too routine.
Students ask you questions that you haven’t thought of, and it keeps your brain ticking
I’d been holding out for an opportunity in the hospital that didn’t come, so after a year or two I stopped working there and started at Bradford University, supervising clinics, to try and keep my brain engaged. Students ask you questions that you haven’t thought of, and it keeps your brain ticking.
I loved my work at Specsavers, but I missed contact lenses.I think once you stop working in contact lenses and stop using that skill, it’s quite hard then to get back into it. That’s why I took the Asda opportunity. It also seemed like something fresh. It was a new thing for Asda, so it was an exciting time. I’m glad I did it, and obviously I’m still there.
Asda was brilliant. Because healthcare was new for them, they were very open to ideas. The practice that I was working at, Wakefield, had a diverse patient set, from the very young to the very old. Very quickly, we knew we had a loyal patient base. Asda have always been very flexible. They have a lot of policies that look after their staff. I felt looked after, and that’s why I’ve stayed with them.
About 10 years ago, I spent time working at Wakefield Prison, testing eyes one day a week.Wakefield Prison is one of the highest security prisons in the country, so you have to go through security training. It was completely different to what we’re used to, working on the High Street. Every single week was different. You’re doing the paperwork, the eye testing, the dispensing – everything. If there’s an accident or a problem, they might call you to look at that as well.
We could go in and find that they’d had a security risk and the whole place was in lockdown and the clinics cancelled. It was variable and challenging. Prisoners have the same problems that we do on the outside: can’t read a newspaper, can’t read my post, my glasses have broken. It’s quite easy to forget where you are.
Prisoners have the same problems that we do on the outside: can’t read a newspaper, can’t read my post, my glasses have broken
Your decision making is different in a prison. You have to make a decision on the day. If it's fixing glasses, can you put a temporary repair on? In High Street practice there are alternatives, or you can order things. In prison glasses have to go through checking, in case they can be used as an implement. There were certain types of frames that couldn't go in. Chains weren't allowed. I had to take a step back and think, “Is that going to work?”
Over the five years it changed a lot, in that I could see how challenging it was for the prison guards and officers. Funding was cut; there were fewer and fewer people working. I felt, towards the end, that it was still great, it was still interesting, but I didn’t feel as safe as I used to. It was a natural time to step away.
I’m three years into my four-year cycle working in Fitness to Practise with the General Optical Council.I spotted an advert on social media. When I read the skills, including auditing optometrists and checking people’s clinical skills, it fed into work I’d been doing Asda. It was a tough application process. I was pleasantly surprised that I got selected. I’ve loved it – it's really interesting work.
In the hearings, one or two optometrists work with one or two laypeople. The laypeople tend to have done this kind of work – retired lawyers or retired police officers, so they have some sort of knowledge of law in general. It's interesting to see how optometrists work with people who have got a very different background. You learn so much from them. I’m always amazed by how much knowledge they have; how they look at things very differently. It’s a way of looking at the work that I do in practice from a different angle. You’re not just looking at a patient in one room. You’re looking at the bigger picture, and that makes it more interesting. It has changed my perspective.
I started working with LOCSU in August last year.I’d been in a mentoring circle, for a group of six women from completely different professions, and that was fresh in my brain. We’d explored psychologies of men versus women when they apply for jobs. Something that stuck out to me was, “I’m looking at this application form, and I’m looking at the two or three things that I don't know how to do. There are so many skills that I do have, but I’m focusing on the negatives, not the positives.” Usually, when men look at job applications, they think, “I can’t do that. I can do that. I’ll give it a go.” There’s a difference in how we apply. It struck me that I was doing the same thing, and it was holding me back. It was a challenge to myself.
I had spoken to somebody who’d got a job in a different profession after spilling a glass of water on the panel. I thought, “If she can get a job, and she had a rubbish day, then I think I’ll be alright.” It was quite a relaxed interview. The first few weeks and months have been quite challenging, because it’s very different, again, to the structure that we’re used to in our profession. But it’s been nice to get to know so many different people now we’re coming out the other side of the pandemic.
A LOCSU day is different every week. It's very versatile. It gives me the opportunity to work from home and have more flexibility. At the moment, the balance of my work means I do get weekends off too. That’s unusual, and it’s nice.
When I joined Asda I’d got married that year and had a baby, so they’ve been through my journey with me: marriage, then baby, and then unfortunately divorce, and being a single mum for all these years.
If something happens or I have childcare issues, they’ve always been accommodating. In the past few years, they’ve given me opportunities to do more: auditing our optometrists, working as a clinical lead, looking after some of their compliance work. It’s been good to be able to split my week: two to three days of clinics and a couple of days of compliance work. I’d like to think it has made me a better optometrist: constantly questioning myself, making sure I’m working to the best of my safe ability.
I've just started an 18-month secondment as their optical compliance manager. It’s a unique opportunity to have that secondment and then be able to go back into clinical work. I can’t imagine anywhere else where I would have an opportunity like that. I’m excited and quite honoured to be offered that opportunity.
My plan B?
I would have been a teacher. That was something that I wanted to do from an early age. I would have probably done a PhD. I quite like research, and that was the appeal of teaching. If I didn’t do the optometry degree, I would have either been teaching or researching.
Lead image: HMP Wakefield, where Bobby Sarvat Fida spent time working with high security prisoners