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 Woody Thigpen, OD. Through his work in Cambodia, he has helped improve the vision of more than 28,000 Cambodians in various villages.

What year did you graduate from UABSO?

I graduated in 1978 with the last entering class of 25 students.

Describe your optometry career path.

After graduating from UABSO in 1978 and passing the Virginia Board of Optometry exam, I began practicing in Danville, VA with Dr. John C. Simpson, Jr. I partnered with this very kind optometrist for seven years.  I went on two mission trips during this time – one to Honduras and the other to Antigua in the West Indies.  I had previously taken one trip with SOSH to Guatemala while I was a student.

These trips seemed to whet my appetite to share my training and faith with others. In 1985 I left Danville and entered Regent University (Virginia Beach, VA) to pursue theological studies.  There I practiced part-time with a second-generation optometrist, Dr. Howard Ossen.  After I graduated from Regent, I married Lynn Morrison who I met at Regent and we worked together full-time in Norfolk, VA.

In 1992 our daughter was born and we transitioned to further theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. Taking a different career path in 1995, we accepted a job in Singapore as a Minister of Education at International Baptist Church (IBC) and worked there for 4.5 years.  While in Singapore, I kept my license up to date but did not practice. However, my training did not go to waste, as I was able to consult with a number of people in need of direction regarding their eye health. One friend had a difficult time with an EKC infection and the Ophthalmologist had tried only an antibiotic so I suggested using an antibiotic /steroid combination which facilitated his recovery. 

While at IBC Singapore, I led volunteer teams to assist in Cambodia. The needs in that war-torn nation tugged at my heart and we transitioned to work there with the International Mission Board (Southern Baptists). In God’s perfect plan, they were operating an NGO (non-governmental organization) and needed humanitarian workers with various skills. After our initial language study, we began to do mobile eye clinics part-time in various villages all over Cambodia. Through the years we helped over 28,000 Cambodians with eyeglasses for distance and near making referrals as needed. 

At first, I used Lion’s Club eyeglasses, but it was a huge challenge to get them through customs and even rural Cambodians who could watch TV using car batteries preferred smaller, newer styles of eyewear.  I found a local eyeglass seller in the market and bought glasses wholesale for less than $1 apiece.  

Besides operating in this capacity, we were always helping and consulting expatriates with eye problems, as well as networking with the Cambodian Optometric Association. I was a proctor for them and assisted with the final exams for one of their graduating classes.  In 2014 I was invited to speak on the challenges of using contact lenses at the annual conference of the Cambodian Ophthalmology Society.

Who/What influenced the direction for your optometry career?

While I was in high school, my childhood optometrist Dr. John C. Simpson, Jr. had planted the thought of a career in optometry. I have to say that a UAB SOSH trip to Guatemala with John Classe and Martin Habel and other 1978 class members gave me my first taste of working overseas.  That trip had a profound impact on me, and I believe stirred my heart to be open to serving others overseas in a developing country. 

Would you ever have thought your optometry career would take this direction?

Not at first.

Why or why not?

I did not know anyone working overseas as an optometrist. When I first applied to work overseas, I was offered a short-term job at an eye hospital in Afghanistan; but due to some very severe restrictions, I turned down that job. As I mentioned above, the SOSH trip and other mission trips allowed me to see how I could use the skills and training I received at UABSO to be a blessing to others who might not have access to good eye care.

In what ways has your career path been rewarding or why was this path a good fit for you?

I was so blessed to make this journey when I did.  I applied for and received a slot from the SREB to go to UABSO from Virginia as an in-state student.  With help from my parents, I graduated debt-free with a degree I could use immediately.  Then, I was fortunate to have a great partner with whom I practiced in my hometown for seven years.  After those years, my wife worked with me in private practice in Norfolk, VA and for the past 20 years with our mobile eye clinics.

Optometry was such a good fit for me to be able to help people, to listen to their complaints and needs, and to painstakingly give them the best correction possible. I am a perfectionist, so when I had patients with similar tendencies, I wanted to help them see the best they could. That was sometimes frustrating in village settings, but the smiles on the faces of our patients in Cambodia were so rewarding to see. We could help them and talk with them about their eye issues and direct them when needed to a local clinic with which we cooperated so that they could get cataract or pterygium surgery etc. Optometry allowed me to meet and bless people I otherwise would have never met.

What advice would you give someone interested in a similar path?

I would suggest it is important to know your strengths and weaknesses, to network with other optometrists and classmates, to take mission trips overseas, and to be open to exploring opportunities to use your skills through various humanitarian organizations. Be open to providing healthcare in less fortunate areas as opposed to making a fortune. I am happier and more fulfilled because of the path I chose.

Our class was close-knit and continues to meet on a yearly basis. That sense of camaraderie and mutual encouragement is much needed. If your class does not have that kind of fellowship, start meeting and sharing a meal regularly. Be someone like Dr. John Classe, who gathers your group and keeps the camaraderie alive. You will find you may need one another along your career path. In fact, my class members had a tremendous impact on my life and worked to help diagnose and treat me even when I was halfway across the world in Cambodia. In 2017, I suffered a brain hemorrhage (cavernoma) in my thalamus and my wife was able to send my scans to a fellow classmate, Dr. Murray Glussman, and he was able to use his contacts and get us much needed advice. I am grateful to all my classmates who prayed for me and helped during those trying days. If you know a fellowship that would like some training in doing eye screenings, please contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.