Normally patients are diagnosed with diabetes at a visit to their family physician, not their optometrist. But there are always outliers.
Early in her career, Lynden optometrist Mira Swiecicki diagnosed a patient with diabetic retinopathy, or bleeding of blood vessels in the eyes. The man, who was in for a routine eye exam, was surprised -- this was the first time he'd been diagnosed with diabetes.
Swiecicki wound up talking the man through some of the common symptoms of diabetes: excessive hunger, excessive thirst and needing to use the bathroom a lot in the middle of the night. He had experienced all three, and had a family history of diabetes, but had attributed his symptoms to the large amounts of soda he drank during the day.
"It's really uncommon for that to be the first time someone is diagnosed, but it was really influential on me," Swiecicki says. "I felt like it's something we could influence - we can actually reverse and change the damage that happens to people's eyes if we educate them and teach them how to take care of diabetes."
Swiecicki was an intern in Montana when she gave that man his diagnosis. Now 43, Swiecicki owns Lynden Vision Clinic, and in addition to volunteering for a number of vision-related causes, she runs monthly classes that teach community members how to manage their diabetes.
She started the classes four years ago after getting patients who would come in for an eye exam after being diagnosed with diabetes but still didn't understand how to manage the disease. Swiecicki couldn't take the time to talk at length with patients about the disease during their eye exams, so she started holding monthly classes, which grew into a sort of support group for attendees over the years.
Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in adults in the United States, Swiecicki says, but most of the negative effects can be thwarted by lifestyle changes.
The topic of the class changes from month to month. Sometimes the group participates in hands-on cooking lessons, other times a guest speaker will present to the group in-depth about the disease, or teach an exercise class.
The main goal is to make people feel like they aren't the only ones struggling with the disease and that it can be challenging for everyone, Swiecicki says. She encourages people to bring family members because it helps to have the whole family involved.
"Everyone can benefit from eating healthy," Swiecicki says. "If the people who come leave just a little more motivated than when they got there, it helps."
One of the recent classes helped give members tips on how to eat during the holidays, which can be challenging for anyone trying to watch what they eat.
"We talked about not putting more than an inch of food on your plate and making sure that food also has a one-inch border from the edge of the plate," Swiecicki says.
Recently the group has started attracting younger members, many of whom have Type 1 diabetes. Swiecicki would like to eventually break that group off and have a separate support group, because many of the goals for managing Type 1 diabetes are different than the goals for managing Type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, Swiecicki volunteers once every two months with the Frank Haskell Lions Clinic in Bellingham, which helps provide free vision care to low-income community members.
She is also very involved in the American Optometric Association and the Optometric Physicians of Washington. Swiecicki was named Washington's Optometric Physician of the Year at the society's annual membership meeting in September.
"I was shocked, they really surprised me with the award," Swiecicki says. "I always thought of that award as a lifetime achievement award, and I guess I don't feel like I'm that old yet."
Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Swiecicki became interested in optometry when she took a summer job as a receptionist for a friend's father, who was an optometrist. She worked at his clinic while she was completing her undergraduate education and decided she could probably do his job, so she went on to get her optometry degree from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry.
Swiecicki moved to Bellingham in 1996 to work at the Lynden Vision Clinic, which at the time was partnered with a clinic in Bellingham. Within three years, one of the optometrists was ready to retire, so Swiecicki bought the Lynden clinic and became the owner of the practice.
She says learning to manage the clinic was a trying process because optometry school doesn't provide a lot of management training. Though she wishes she could have taken them sooner, Swiecicki was able to complete management classes in 2003, which helped tremendously in running her practice.
Swiecicki says her favorite part of being an optometrist is just being able to help people, whether that's preventing headaches or helping diagnose and treat more serious conditions, such as retinopathy and cataracts.
When she's not volunteering, Swiecicki enjoys canning food, crafting and going for walks with her black lab, Cocoa.
The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for someone we should salute next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.