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Dr. Marilyn Dougherty shares what it’s been like working as an ophthalmologist during a pandemic.  (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Dr. Marilyn Dougherty shares what it’s been like working as an ophthalmologist during a pandemic. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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For more than a year, Dr. Marilyn Dougherty has donned goggles, a face shield and gloves to prepare for each new day as an ophthalmologist during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Despite major changes that altered daily tasks and amounted in more work for her and her colleagues, those who know Dougherty said she’s never lost sight of caring for her patients.

Dougherty is an ophthalmologist with UCHealth Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center in Boulder, where she has worked for almost 10 years. As an ophthalmologist, Dougherty provides eye checkups and specializes in care for people with cataracts, dry eyes, eye disease and macular degeneration.

Dougherty’s patients range in age from college students to people in their 80s and 90s. While some were able to postpone routine visits to the eye doctor this past year, other patients still needed daily in-person care.

“Ophthalmology doesn’t lend itself well to telemedicine tremendously,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty, alongside the five other providers at the eye center, learned to adapt and continue to provide care.

“The retinal doctors did all of that,” she said. “They were really courageous and stepped up to the plate and saw all of these people.”

Eimi Rodriguez Cruz, director of ophthalmic services for UCHealth Sue Anschutz-Rogers Eye Center, also expressed pride in the faculty and staff’s “resiliency and creativity.”

“Watching them collaborate to find alternative ways to deliver excellent care is reflective of their drive to ensure they had the infrastructure to take care of our community members who needed both routine and urgent eye care, especially those whose care was delayed as a result of the pandemic,” Rodriguez Cruz said in an email. “More specifically, they developed hybrid and virtual health platforms for delivering eye care. They also implemented workflows that included patient escorts and new cleaning processes to ensure patients felt comfortable and safe returning for in-person visits.”

The pandemic altered daily tasks for the center’s eye doctors and patients. Instead of hunkering down in a waiting room, Dougherty said, patients waited for their appointments in their cars. Once they had masked up, they could be escorted into an exam room.

Exercising patience when equipment lenses fogged up because people were wearing masks and trying to maintain distance, when she still had to be less than arm’s length away from patients to exam their eyes, were among some of the pandemic practices she has become accustomed to. That and sanitizing all equipment in between every patient.

“It slowed us down a bit, but people were very patient,” Dougherty said. “We motored through seeing as many people as we could. It’s been stressful for everybody because we’ve all been trying to be super cautious and keep up with a strict routine of keeping everything clean and trying to keep everybody safe.”

In pre-pandemic times, Dougherty would see about 20 people a day — a patient number that was cut in half for several months throughout the virus’ spread.

Dougherty’s work to help others hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Boulder resident Linda Light Bump has known Dougherty for roughly 35 years as a neighbor and also as a doctor. Before Dougherty was working for UCHealth, Light Bump’s son, Austin, was a patient of Dougherty’s. Light Bump said her then 3-year-old son had previously had trouble passing an eye exam that required him to point out a set of letter E’s. The young patient connected with Dougherty. The ophthalmologist was able to determine that there was nothing wrong with Austin’s eyesight.

“She actually looked into his eyes with her technical eye equipment, took us aside, with a grin on her face, and said she thought he was ‘messing with us’ when he pointed his finger in the opposite direction of the E’s,” Light Bump wrote in an email. “She is humble and smart and she is one of the most caring and giving human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

Light Bump said she knows her neighbor’s dedication hasn’t waned throughout the pandemic.

“When I think of people making a difference each and every day, she epitomizes that truly unselfish person who has put herself on the line to help others,” Light Bump said. “Yes, it may be her job, but it is how she has approached that same job daily that separates her from someone just showing up and putting in their time.”

Dougherty’s ability to listen to her patients, is perhaps one example of this. With some of her patients not having the opportunity to go anywhere but to a necessary medical appointment, Dougherty said what she has found throughout the pandemic is that many of her patients needed a few extra minutes to talk to someone.

“They were just so happy to socialize with someone,” Dougherty said. “That was kind of fun that people were just so happy to talk to us.”

People would open up to her, sharing their own stories of enduring throughout the pandemic. Some told her how much they missed being able to see their families, others told her about how they had gotten sick from the virus or had loved ones who had died of COVID-19.

“They would pour their hearts out,” Dougherty said.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Dougherty always knew she wanted to work in the medical field. At first she wanted to be an obstetrician, but through a rotation of medical specialties in her schooling, she found a connection with optometry that matched her skills as a surgeon and gave her the opportunity to work with a diversity of age ranges.

Dougherty attended medical school at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa. She came to Colorado to complete her residency with the University of Colorado’s ophthalmologist program in Denver.

As COVID-19 vaccinations have ramped up, Dougherty said she been seeing some return to normalcy, including a more average patient load. Dougherty herself was able to receive her first vaccine dose in December.

Despite the challenges the pandemic has presented from the extra steps in between each patient visit to the longer hours, Dougherty said her colleagues have continued to inspire her in her work every day.

“You just feel strength in numbers being a part of UCHealth that they would help you if some problem came up,” Dougherty said. “Most dedicated ophthalmologists have a calling to help people with eye problems and you didn’t want to let people down. Despite your fears, you wanted to go in and do what needed to be done.”