As early as her senior year of high school, Dr. Nishan Pressley knew she wanted to be a doctor.
“I honestly never went to the eye doctor before because I had 20/20 vision, so I see well without glasses. However, I went on a field trip to Pennsylvania, to the Penn State Hershey Eye Center, and that was the first time I actually saw a profession specifically that I had no clue existed. It was just beautiful,” said Pressley.
Now, Pressley has a successful practice in Altamonte Springs, Florida, in the Orlando area. She also has a growing presence on social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, where she shares educational information on optometry, as well as lifestyle and marriage tips.
Pressley had always used Instagram for personal use, but when she learned other users were turning to the platform to tell their stories, offer motivation, and make money, she followed suit.
“I thought I should start putting my story out there a little bit more, because for me as a Black woman, being an optometrist in this field is like being a unicorn,” said Pressley, who added she was the first and only Black woman in her optometry program during medical school.
Only 3% of doctors identify as African American or Black, Pressley noted. Meanwhile, this group makes up about 13.6% of the U.S. population, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.
“When I realized that I was the only black woman in my class, I thought I could talk about my experience, and hopefully I can educate and motivate someone to consider joining optometry or becoming an optometrist as well,” said Pressley, explaining her thinking around using social media as part of her profession. “That’s when I decided I wanted to start posting a little bit more. I decided to post about my life, and it kind of caught on. I thought, ‘Okay, I might have something here.’ The next thing you know, you’re bridging the gap between social media and eye care, which is awesome.”
Pressley pointed out that if she’d never studied biology in her undergraduate program, or if she hadn’t taken the AP courses she took in high school, she may never have been able to become a doctor, specifically an optometrist. In speaking out about her profession on social media, she hopes to make this career path more known to other young Black people who are interested in medicine.
“The biggest thing is, we don’t have enough of us in optometry. That’s why I truly believe that there is a lack of care when it comes to preventable eye diseases, specifically in the Black community,” Pressley said.
For one thing, diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol — all health conditions that are more prevalent among Black people than white people, according to government data — also affect the eyes, Pressley said. “It’s more than just, ‘Oh you need glasses,’” she explained.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many patients were forgoing in-person appointments with their primary care doctors, either skipping the visits altogether or seeing their physicians online via telemedicine due to safety concerns. These forgone doctor’s appointments led to an increase in missed diagnoses for the aforementioned ailments, and thus more eye issues emerged, Pressley observed.
“Eye care goes hand in hand with everyday lifestyle,” Pressley said. “People don’t realize that until they either go to the eye doctor and something’s wronge, or they hear about it happening to someone else in their family.”
Sharing her wisdom
For people looking to tend to their eye health, Pressley recommends an annual eye exam, which in her practice contains two parts: a vision test and screening for ocular disease. “If you have a family history of glaucoma, we need to be checking you every single year. If you have a family history of macular degeneration, you should be getting checked every single year, sometimes every six months,” she said, emphasizing that she also checks for those other signs of systemic disease in the eyes.
For aspiring optometrists, Pressley advised finding a buddy who can support you and keep you accountable. Above all, “remember your why,” she said. “If you know that you want to be an optometrist, know it’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of tests; there are a lot of boards you have to take,” she said. “The biggest thing I recommend is to remember your ‘why’ because that’s going to get you through those days where maybe you fail a test, or maybe you fail your clinical skills practical. Remember why you’re there.”