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Seeing clearly now: Station optometrist shaped up to become Navy doctor

By Sgt. David A. Bryant | | May 22, 2003

Yuma Marines or sailors who have had to get their eyes checked recently have probably been checked by Lt. Cmdr. Paul Andre, station optometrist. They may have learned a lot about how the eyes work during their exam, and probably left with a favorable impression of not only the way Andre works, but of the man himself. By his appearance, Andre is young, clean-cut, in great physical shape, and his love of his job and the military seems to shine from his very personality. Most Marines would probably guess him to be a Naval Academy graduate, or possibly a college reserve officer training corps student who went straight into his chosen profession after receiving his commission as a naval officer. So it may come as quite a shock to learn that he originally had no intention whatsoever of joining the military. It could also be shocking to learn he was overweight, out of shape, had hair down below the middle of his back, wore a beard, put himself through ten years of college and was in private practice as an optometrist for three years before deciding to join the Navy shortly before he turned 30. All of which may be rather difficult to believe, especially when a chance question about him at the station medical facility will have any corpsman there tell all about how Andre is a physical training monster. He's at the gym almost every morning, runs almost every day, quit smoking and stopped drinking during officer candidate school and is an all-around health activist. So what could cause such a drastic change? "I just wasn't happy," Andre said. "I was making more money as a civilian, but after the cost of malpractice insurance (required to practice), paying off all of my student loans and the cost of continuing education, that became irrelevant. Besides money's not worth anything if you're not happy, and I wasn't." The patients he was seeing as a civilian weren't very appreciative of what he did, either, he said. Whenever problems cropped up, whether with a patient, payments or with problems around the office that just needed fixing, there was no completion they would drag on and never quite get fixed. So one day he walked into a Navy recruiter's office and started the paperwork to become a Naval doctor. "It was a big life change," Andre said. "I had always had long hair and I was about ten to 12 pounds overweight. It took me 18 minutes to run my fitness test (a one-and-a-half-mile run) in officer candidate school, and it was when I was huffing and puffing along there that I decided I needed to make a change in my health habits." So he persevered losing a total of 55 pounds and now completes his run in about ten minutes, he said. He is currently training with his optometry corpsman to run a marathon in San Diego. "I was shocked when I found out about the way he was before he came in," said Lt. Julie Ritner, a Navy flight surgeon. "It's hard to ever see him being that way. From what I know of his former life, he was very non-conformist, and the military is very regimented. I can't see him putting the two together, but he's really done very well at it." As a doctor, Ritner described Andre as very professional and thorough with his patients. As a person, she said he's personable and approachable. He relates well to people, and while he keeps his professionalism as a Navy officer at all times, he doesn't allow his rank to make him unapproachable, especially to junior enlisted. "The most interesting thing about him is seeing the way he is now, compared to how he was then," she said. "You would never be able to tell. People who aren't active develop habits of inactivity, and it takes a lot of drive to change that. It's sort of like inertia an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest and for anyone to break out of that routine is incredible." Although getting into shape wasn't the original reason for joining the Navy, it did become an important part of his new career, Andre said. The main reason was to get away from doing the same thing every day the military provided more versatility, the chance to travel and a chance to get out and meet new people. "In private practice, nothing really changes you never get the chance to go up to that next level," he said. "And the military doesn't have the problems with completion, either when something needs doing, it gets resolved." Andre doesn't regret leaving private practice one bit, he said. He enjoys the military, and wouldn't trade the experience for anything. "In fact, I'm healthier now at 37 than I was at 23," Andre said. "I wasn't as health conscious. I think a lot of doctors are that way they know what the need to do, but just don't have the time to do it." "He's a very motivating and unique individual," Ritner said. "He's fun to be around, and I think most anyone who knows him would say that of him."` Andre intends to transfer later in the year, probably in October, to take over the optometry department at a larger unit. The leadership and administrative experience will help greatly when he is ready for promotion to commander. And while his new command will benefit from having him, the medical facility here won't be the same without him.
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