Spring 2014
Spring 2014

Keeping the Faith
Diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy at the age of 34, Gregg Pusateri, OD '86 left practice and entered the ministry. Little did he know that his new calling would play an instrumental role in his return to optometry nearly 16 years later.
Written by Erin Engstrom

It was 1996 and things were going great for Gregg Pusateri, OD ’86. He had a thriving practice in Sycamore, Ill. He was happily married to his wife, Linda, and together they had two healthy young sons, Jacob and Justin. The Chicago Bulls were in the middle of their second three-peat. Life was good.

“My office was only two blocks from my house, so I walked to work every day for five years,” he says. “I would put the phone on forwarding–didn’t bother with an answering service–and I would take the appointment book home. So if patients ever needed to, they could reach me at the house. And every once in a while, I would get an emergency call and I would meet a patient back at the office.”

Such devotion to patients reaped rewards. The practice grew by 30 percent for three years in a row. “Most Fortune 500 companies would kill for that kind of growth,” Dr. Pusateri says. “So I thought, ‘This is it. My practice is booming, it’ll be paid off in a couple more years and I’ll be sitting pretty.’”

One evening he got home late and sat down to eat some dinner and watch the Bulls on one of their championship runs. “I had a glass of iced tea in my hand and I reached up to itch my head and inadvertently occluded my right eye,” he says. “And I noticed that the television screen went blurry. I started blinking and it wasn’t changing. So I got up, went to my desk and took out an Amsler grid. Checked my right eye. Negative. Checked my left eye. When you do an Amsler grid on yourself and you see that it’s positive, it is a horrible feeling. I was just stunned.”

He called Steven Tichy, MD, a retina specialist and good friend. “I knew what was coming,” says Dr. Pusateri. “I didn’t want to know, but I did.” Dr. Pusateri had a long family history of cone-rod dystrophy, and the ophthalmologist had examined multiple relatives and followed the progression of the condition.

Four days later, Dr. Pusateri visited Dr. Tichy, who confirmed his fears. “It’s one thing to deliver the news as a doctor,” says Dr. Pusateri. “But when you’re the patient who receives the news, you feel like someone ripped the carpet right out from under you.”

A devout Christian since he was 16, Dr. Pusateri had a conversation with God. He cried, he yelled, he questioned. And he considered the possibility that entering the ministry might be his next step. He’d had fleeting thoughts of attending seminary before, but now that optometry no longer seemed a sustainable possibility, the calling seemed stronger than ever.

Throughout his years in practice, Dr. Pusateri wasn’t shy about sharing his faith. He had a hand-carved “Jesus Saves” wood sign in his office. He frequently counseled with patients, sometimes about matters related to their eyes and sometimes not.

When you do an Amsler grid on yourself and you see that it’s positive, it is a horrible feeling.

“I’d take them into my office and they’d start to unload about problems they were having in their lives,” he says. “And I had the opportunity to pray with people in my exam room during a session like that, or at an appointment when someone finds out they’re not going to get their vision back.”

Now, on the receiving end of such information, Dr. Pusateri was at a crossroads. In the weeks following his diagnosis, his vision dropped precipitously, from 20/25 and 20/40 to 20/40 and 20/200, with a posterior vitreous detachment in his left eye. After praying with Linda and considering their finances, Dr. Pusateri applied to seminary programs.

The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary offered Dr. Pusateri a grant covering 90 percent of tuition, and his church gave him another $3,000–his tuition was covered entirely. The family moved to Dubuque in 1997, with living expenses taken care of by a disability policy Dr. Pusateri had taken out following graduation from ICO. In 2001 he graduated from seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. Following commencement, he was offered the position of senior pastor at Alto Reformed Church in Waupun, Wis., where he served for more than nine years. Following this post, he served as interim pastor at Trinity Reformed Church in Waupun for six months.

In 2011, their sons now in college, Dr. Pusateri and Linda decided to move home to Illinois, despite the fact that there were no jobs waiting. But Dr. Pusateri had recently acquired his first iPad, and felt as if limitless possibilities had suddenly opened up. “The iPad literally changed my world, as far as how much I could do,” he says.

He called up his friend Dr. Tichy. “I said, ‘Steve, I’ve been looking and looking, and it doesn’t seem like the door’s opening for any churches. So I’ve been thinking of going back and doing low vision work. Do you think I’m crazy?’”

With my pastoral counseling, with my experience as an optometrist and as a person with low vision, I was a unique fit at the office.

Dr. Tichy assured Dr. Pusateri that he did not think his friend was crazy, and asked the optometrist whether he had heard of the Spectrios Institute for Low Vision, based in Wheaton, Ill. “He said, ‘With your skill, knowledge and background, you’d be a tremendous fit there,’” recalls Dr. Pusateri. Dr. Tichy, a member of Spectrios’ board of directors, offered to call the organization’s executive director, R. Tracy Williams, OD ’79. Coincidentally, the two optometrists knew each through ICO.

“As an assistant professor at ICO, I always thought that Gregg had the three most important virtues in life: Be kind, be kind, be kind,” says Dr. Williams. “And I knew what a conscientious practitioner he was.”

Dr. Pusateri soon received a call from Dr. Williams, and spent a good part of the conversation telling his former professor about how he was using the iPad. Dr. Williams expressed that there was a need for someone technologically adept at Spectrios, and the two optometrists arranged to meet once Dr. Pusateri was back in Illinois.

Several weeks later, Drs. Pusateri and Williams met for lunch. “It was a tremendous reunion,” says Dr. Williams. “I loved Gregg’s energy and enthusiasm… He believed it was so important to provide professional paternalism–teaching the consumer as much as you can about their problem, and what they can do about it. He was eager to learn more in the low vision area. And he absolutely loved what we love to do at Spectrios, which is to tickle the human spirit…. I said, ‘This is just too good to be true.’ So I went back to my board and said, ‘We have got to find a place for him.’”

Dr. Pusateri joined Spectrios in October 2011. “With my pastoral counseling, with my experience as an optometrist and as a person with low vision, I was a unique fit at the office,” he says. “When you put everything together,” says Dr. Williams of his colleague’s mix of experiences, “what you come up with is the person who might be the absolute best soldier in the fox hole if you have vision loss.”

Initially, however, Dr. Pusateri was unable to work to the full capacity of his abilities, as his optometric license was inactive. In order to reactivate it, he needed to obtain therapeutic pharmaceutical agent certification, a requirement instituted the same year that Dr. Pusateri left optometry.

Upon learning of Dr. Pusateri’s plan to renew his license, his ICO classmate, Dr. Steve Butzon, wrote a letter to the class of 1986. Dr. Butzon explained Dr. Pusateri’s intentions and asked the class for help. “I started getting cards and letters and checks from classmates in the mail,” says Dr. Pusateri. “They encouraged me to get back in the field and covered more than half the cost of the trip and course. It’s very humbling.”
He flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and completed the 100-hour TPA certification course at the Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry in 10 days. “My license came one week before Christmas,” says Dr. Pusateri. “It was the greatest present I could have gotten.”

License in hand, Dr. Pusateri still had a lot of learning to do. A primary care provider at his own clinic, he devoted his first year at Spectrios to learning all about low vision. Even today, he finds he’s still brushing up on aspects of the profession after being out for nearly 16 years. He discovered that the profession had advanced tremendously while he was away, and in ways that are even more beneficial to him now than they would have been before. “The digital photography, the OCT imaging, the automated perimetry testing units that are available today–they’re all just phemomenal,” he says.

Dr. Pusateri’s responsibilities at Spectrios include supervising fourth year externs; taking on numerous public speaking engagements throughout the country; and working extensively with Eye Tec, the organization’s assistive and adaptive technology program. Unsurprisingly, given his transformational experience with the iPad, Dr. Pusateri focuses on tablet and smart phone technology.

“The iPad has opened doors for me to do things I was unable to in the past, and now I can help teach others to use it so they too can enjoy greater independence,” he says. Among the functionalities he finds most useful are zoom, voiceover, invert colors and speech selection. “And Siri,” he says. “Siri alone is a huge help.”

Dr. Pusateri also examines patients, as his eyesight is sufficient to use a Volk lens and a slit lamp. “The good thing about being in low vision is that I’m not there to do the diagnosis,” he says. “It’s important to know what the diagnosis is and to understand the disease process, because that will guide you in helping the patient. But I still want to be able to get a good look.” If he’s unable to get the look he needs, he’s quick to ask the other doctors at Spectrios for assistance. “I know my limitations,” he says.

Although Dr. Pusateri has hung up his cassock for the time being, his days ministering to others are far from over. “He’s been very strong in counseling people who are struggling with issues of acceptance and coping,” says Dr. Williams.

Upon meeting a new patient, Dr. Pusateri shares his own experiences with vision loss. “They recognize that I empathize with people,” he says. “I don’t go into an exam room trying to evangelize. But I’m not bashful about sharing that I’m a minister. And regardless of faith–Christian, Jewish, Muslim–patients have opened up to me. They realize that I genuinely care about people.”

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