Her relationship with optometry began when she was a child, but it wasn’t love at first sight.
Dr. Denise Whittam desperately needed glasses in the second grade, but refused to admit it for fear of having to wear what she called “FDNY union glasses.” She kept her secret for five years, memorizing the eye chart so she could ace her screenings.
“It was my older sister Barbara who gave me up by insisting to my parents that I couldn’t see anything. She was right. I passed people on the streets without even realizing they were my friends,” says Dr. Whittam, who graduated from SUNY Optometry in 1991. “My first pair was a -4.00 sph, ugly hexagonal tortoise frame that was much too small for my big head. They not only made me feel dizzy and nauseous, but everything looked smaller and miles away.”
Her sister eventually helped her get fit for the soft contact lenses that changed her life. “My whole personality went from being shy and introverted to being the lead actress in our school’s play. I could finally see the world, and my friends!”
Her second brush with optometry came in high school, when she was working part-time in a corporate retail Cohen’s Fashion Optical. The OD encouraged her to go to optometry school, but she was excited to major in English literature and creative writing at Queens College, City University of New York. She went on to teach students with special needs for five years, but came to a jarring realization. “There is a strong correlation to academic success and vision,” says Dr. Whittam. “None of them had ever had a comprehensive eye exam before in their lives, and the schools were just pushing students through to the next grade.”
After talking to Dr. Sandra Goldman Cohen ‘82 about the problem, she learned there was an entire area of optometry that centered on these issues. She earned her ophthalmic dispensing license at New York City Technical College before joining the College’s Class of 1991. “I loved geometric and theoretical optics, but did not love being an ophthalmic dispenser. I wanted more. I wanted to work with children to advocate the brain-eye-vision connection and to help them improve their visual skills, which would inevitably help them succeed in school.”
Dr. Whittam joined the Alumni Association after graduation and became president in 2013. It is work that she finds deeply satisfying. “I enjoy every student event from the first day of meeting our future ODs during Orientation Day to every White Coat Ceremony to the Eye Ball—and finally giving that congratulatory toast at graduation and wishing our residents a fond farewell,” she says. “It gives me great pride to realize that timid, bright students will develop within a four-year period to become incredibly brilliant, dedicated doctors of optometry who will all help the world in many ways.”
She also loves that those four years are truly just the beginning. “With the wonderful efforts of our Alumni Association, our friendships will last a lifetime.”
Dr. Whittam considers the merger of the Alumni Association with the Optometric Center of New York as her proudest accomplishment of her tenure as president, which will end this summer. “This merger will allow us to enjoy many more events together, strengthening that feeling of family among our colleagues,” she says. “This is a necessary step. Too often, when I visit colleagues, they tell me that they received my ‘letter asking for money.’ But appeals are not how I want to be remembered. The camaraderie and lifelong connections matter as we grow, sharing the good times and the bad. We are here for each other.”