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by Satina Richardson

Heidi Hernandez has earned a highly competitive residency at The Eye Institute of Salus University (TEI). The two-year neuro-ophthalmic disease residency accepts only one resident annually and is the only one of its kind in the nation. It is the first time a UAB optometry student has been chosen for this program.

“When I received the news that I had been selected, I was in complete shock,” said Heidi Hernandez, a fourth year UAB School of Optometry student and recipient of this residency. “Something just felt right; it felt almost too good to be true. I feel really privileged and grateful to have matched there.”

Neuro-ophthalmic disease studies vision-related problems and issues associated with the brain, nerves and muscles. Accordingly, the residency focuses on diagnosing and treating neuro-ophthalmic diseases and conditions.  

“The residency in neuro-ophthalmic disease at The Eye Institute at Salus/PCO is the embodiment of everything I hope to be as a clinician,” Hernandez said. “It provides an advanced level of training in this specialty under the mentorship of leading optometrists in the field and other specialty physicians. The program also incorporates didactic components to help its residents grow as future educators.” 

Kelly Malloy, OD, FAAO, is the residency supervisor and co-creator of the Neuro-Ophthalmic Disease residency. She is one of the leading experts nationwide in neuro-optometry.

She has been chief of Neuro-Ophthalmic Disease at TEI for nearly two decades. Malloy is a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry and is currently the only diplomat in neuro-ophthalmic disorders. She has been published multiple times and lectures extensively nationally and internationally. 

“As a Pennsylvania College of Optometry graduate myself, I know how prestigious and competitive this particular residency is, and I am so proud of Heidi,” said Caroline Pate, OD, director of Residency Programs at the UAB School of Optometry.

Hernandez, a member of UABSO’s class of 2023, has had a strong interest in neuroscience since her teen years. This led her to apply for an early graduation from high school to join the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program at UAB. The selective program is designed for graduating high school seniors and college freshmen or sophomores with strong academic records and the motivation to pursue careers in biomedical science.

“Within the program, I took a course on sensory neuroscience which is where my focus on the visual pathway and its processing began,” she said. “I started to shadow at UAB Eye Care and observed a sixth cranial nerve palsy very early on with the primary care resident. That was the moment that I knew I wanted to enter the specialty of neuro-ophthalmic disease.”

She applied to UABSO that same year, was accepted, and began coursework in August 2019.

Hernandez and her husband Hugo, also a class of 2023 optometry student, met at UAB as undergraduates and married during their third year of optometry school. The two will move to Philadelphia together for her residency. He plans to work at an optometry practice in the city.

“Birmingham, Alabama, is a special place we have always called home and somewhere we hope to return to after my residency concludes,” she said. “I hope to provide specialty patient care in neuro-ophthalmic disease and enter the world of academia to pass forward the skills and knowledge needed to equip other students to enter the field of neuro-optometry. Hugo hopes to work in a private practice setting once we return and eventually buy a practice of his own.” 

“I admire Heidi’s desire and drive to gain the advanced clinical training in a specialty area that will make her the best clinician she can be,” Pate said. “I am always so proud of all of our School of Optometry graduates who choose to seek out programs that will challenge them and set them up to become the next leaders of our profession in the future. I am so excited to see what the future holds for her, and I know she will go on to do amazing things.”