Some say the eyes are the window to the soul, but Dr. Dennis Mathews will tell you that they can also open doors to a world of information about the entire body. It’s what keeps him fascinated with his profession.
“Optometry is such an interesting combination of physiology, optics, biology, neurology – you’re seeing so much more than just an eye,” he said. “The eyes can tell us about systemic diseases, injuries, nutrition deficiencies and viral infections, for instance. And then there’s the added bonus of getting to work with so many different people.”
Mathews is an associate professor at Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, where he teaches glaucoma and neuro-eye disease. He also practices consultative optometry as a partner with the Memphis-based Vitreoretinal Foundation (VRF) Eye Specialty Group. He was co-director of the Memphis Health Center Eye Clinic and center director at Omni Eye Services of Memphis until 1993.
Recently, he added a new title to his list of accomplishments.
In July, Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Mathews to serve as one of six members of the Tennessee Board of Optometry, which aims to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by ensuring the qualifications of all practicing optometrists in the state. Created by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1925, the board interprets the laws, rules and regulations to determine the appropriate standards of practice for the highest degree of professional conduct. It issues licenses to qualified candidates, investigates alleged violations of the Practice Act, and is responsible for the discipline of licensees who are found guilty of such violations.
In short, it’s a big responsibility, and one that Mathews takes very seriously.
“The board includes five optometrists and one layperson, but when we sit down at those quarterly meetings, we all have to wear the hat of a protector of the citizens of Tennessee,” he said. “There are many things we have to be concerned about: We’re employees of the state of Tennessee. We’re representing other health care professionals. And all board meetings are open to the public. It’s a privilege and an honor to serve on this important board.”
Mathews’ colleagues are eager to attest to his dedication and expertise.
“Optometry is such an interesting combination of physiology, optics, biology, neurology — you’re seeing so much more than just an eye.”
–Dr. Dennis Mathews
“I’ve known him for 23 years, and Dr. Mathews is probably one of the most talented optometric physicians I’ve ever met,” said Dr. James Venable, vice president of clinical programs for The Eye Center at Southern College of Optometry. “Neuro-Optometry has always been his focus, and he’s probably one of the top five neuro-optometrists in the country in terms of expertise and reputation. Not only that, he’s inspired decades of students, interns and resident physicians to be the best they can be in the field of optometry.”
Mathews says mentoring students is one of the most important aspects of his career.
“Teaching in an educational institution helps us stay current in our knowledge base – and we’re working with young people who will be leading the profession in the future. That’s rewarding,” he said.
He strives to teach his students never to lose focus on the real reason they’re practicing.
“I tell them, ‘Always remember that you are an advocate for your patient, always be the best you can be, and always do the best for the patient you’re advising and treating,’” Mathews said.
He also tells them to be diligent and flexible in an industry that is becoming more complex and constantly changing.
As for his own educational path, Mathews grew up in rural northeast Alabama. His father was a carpenter; his mother was a stay-at-home mom.
“I was the first in the family to go to college, the first to go through a doctoral program,” Mathews said. “I’ve always been interested in science – my favorite toy as a child was my chemistry set.”
He received his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His original intention was to become a microbiologist, but he became intrigued by eye medicine while working on a study on viral infections in babies.
Mathews graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry in 1982, and in 1983 completed a residency in hospital-based optometry at the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he met his wife, who is also an optometrist.
When he’s not peering deep into the eyes of patients or working with his students, Mathews enjoys cycling, fishing and spending time with his wife, son and two daughters, both of whom are competitive swimmers.
He also enjoys giving continuing education lectures to graduate doctors, and although his resume and accomplishments are already extensive, he still has big plans for his future.
“Obviously I want to keep doing the very best I can for my patients, I want to continue my work in academia, and I’d like to write a book about neuro-eye disease before I retire,” he said. “And I see that retirement as a long way off.”