In recognition of the year 2020 and the significance of 20/20 in the field of optometry, the UAB School of Optometry is recognizing alumni whose careers have impacted communities, set precedents, or moved the profession forward in some way. With this in mind, meet Jim Marbourg, OD.

Marbourg's optometry career path started in West Palm Beach where he was an aerospace engineer working on the original Space Shuttle and F-15 programs. He realized that he wanted a career that focused more on one-to-one interaction and was based on some type of professional care.

His observations led him to optometry where, as a student, he fell in love with teaching at UABSO and private practice. His professional road took a detour in January 2019 when he hit a cardiac “pothole”. Six months later he raised the white flag to full-time employment and retired from UABSO and VisionAmerica/Eye Health Partners/SEES after 41 and 27 years, respectively. He still counsels former students and colleagues on issues related to their practices or professional setting.

What year did you graduate from UABSO? 1977

Describe your optometry career path and what you’re doing now? My 'Optometry Career Path' started in West Palm Beach where I was an aerospace engineer working on the original Space Shuttle and F-15 programs. I realized that I wanted a different career, one that focused more on one-to-one interaction and based on some type of professional care service. Of all the professionals with whom I met to discuss their particular profession, only the optometrist seemed excited about what he did on a daily basis and the future of that profession. After several meetings with him, I was convinced. A college roommate and fellow engineer in Florida had recently started his medical education at UAB and during a conversation, he informed me about a brand new school of optometry in Birmingham. As the saying goes, '…the rest is history...' as to how I ended up in Birmingham.

At UABSO, I took a work/study job that got me involved in both teaching general photography to other students and doing a lot of the clinical photography. I caught the teaching bug and it lasted quite some time, about 40+ years. My time as a student in clinic also turned my path toward private practice, and I started two cold-solo and one cold with a colleague. My love for private practice has not yet dwindled, and I remain convinced that private practice is still the strength and backbone of our profession.

Our battles with our ophthalmic medical colleagues resulted in my involvement in helping to form and eventually manage referral centers in Alabama and other states. It was a true joy to work with many optometric colleagues in an endeavor that (in my opinion) had a significant impact on the growth and success of optometry. I also think it concurrently proved that optometry was/is a highly qualified health care profession that works well with many subspecialties, not just ophthalmology.

My professional road took a detour in January of 2019 when I hit a cardiac 'pothole'. Six months later I raised the white flag to full-time employment and retired from UABSO and VisionAmerica/Eye Health Partners/SEES after 41 and 27 years, respectfully. I still counsel my former students and colleagues on issues related to their practices or professional setting. I love doing so!

Who/What influenced the direction of your optometry career? When you look back on events in your life and how they shaped and influenced your life, it can bring a better understanding and clarity of your path for me, one of those events was having Dr. John Amos as my CEVS instructor and attending in clinic. He had the 'Fire in the Belly' for making our profession a growing and significant component in the health care community via our diagnosing and management of visual disorders and ocular disease. He was preparing us for the rapidly approaching world of therapeutics and what would be required of us for the professional and legislative battles. Stealing and slightly altering a line from a movie, 'he made me want to be a better optometrist' and to never stop growing in my clinical knowledge. He was the clinical cake in my UABSO education and the icing for ocular disease came from Drs. Larry Alexander, Lyman Norden, Boyd Eskridge, Rod Nowakowski…just to name a few.

I do believe that from the mid-'70s thru the early 2000s, UABSO had the finest optometric faculty assembled at one institution and that we, as students, were the direct beneficiaries of their love of optometry and for teaching. Authors, lecturers, and educators of national prominence...they brought it all to the table for us. We were very fortunate.

Your impact has been significant. Would you ever have thought your optometry career would take this direction? Why or why not? As an optometric student, I did not plan on anything for the future. CEVS and my student clinical experience did turn my interest from research to direct patient care, which meant private practice to me. Surviving a lack of business knowledge, 22% interest rates, and a blinding assumption of 'surely, everyone must be honest', I started my first practice and made virtually every mistake a new grad can make. Only because of a lot of prayers and moral support from wonderful friends and family, I did survive. Those early years taught me a lot, especially to never complain about a very full schedule, to value great staff who hang with you through 'thick and thin', and to treat every patient as family or better!

This question is supposed to indicate whether my path in optometry was what I thought it was going to be? Well, I did not have a planned path nor a real clue as to what it would end up being. I just followed what I perceived to be a need and was willing to help, if asked. So while I was a private practitioner, teaching and optometric referrals centers came into my life. Private practice convinced me of the need for and OD based referral centers and my referral center involvement assisted in my efforts in academia. I have loved EVERY ASPECT of my optometric career because of the people with whom I worked and taught. My colleagues, staff, patients and students; I loved them all. If there has been any impact from such, I leave that decision to their opinion.

In what ways has your career path been rewarding or why this path a good fit for you? My career and path have been more than rewarding and fulfilling. My best friends are former instructors of mine, classmates or students. I met my wife at UABSO. I met the first employee I ever hired while we were both at UAB and only my retirement ended our 42-year working relationship. There is a saying that ..."It takes a long time to grow old friends", and through my career, I've been so very fortunate to do so.

I am a believer in the 3 Fs: faith, family and friends. If one is lucky enough to have and enjoy all 3, they most likely have a very rewarding and fulfilling life; just my opinion. So while my career did not create my faith, it sure did cause me to call upon it during all the tough times. That faith helped me through every turn and valley of my life/career. That journey strengthened my faith, and I am a fortunate and blessed man in so many ways.

My friends…unbelievable! Those that were my former students now joke that my heart attack did prove them wrong… I did have a heart! Those that were classmates still discuss our school days and how much fun we had..." some of best days ever"! And those that were my instructors, I have done my best to tell them of my appreciation for all that they did. They were mentors and are now friends.

What advice would you give someone interested in a similar path? I do not know if I'd recommend my path to others. I think we are all different and have different goals and aspirations. As I look back over the 43+ years since my graduation from UABSO, I find some lessons that I feel still hold:

  • Love what you do...or do something else
  • If you do it half-heartedly, your enjoyment of and reward for your time will be just that, about half
  • Stay open-minded and willing to evaluate your options, because 'Life' will throw changes at you
  • Be prepared for 'change'; think through some "what ifs" and see what you might need to do to be prepared
  • Get 'data points' on key decisions that need to be made; the more points.... the more likely your decision will be the best of your options

Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts and memories.