One day after trying to maneuver a 500-pound wicker basket, Edie Bowman realized she was in her late 30s, recently divorced, and no longer wanted to destroy her health from the rigors of piloting a hot-air balloon.

So, while many people would be terrified to start from square one at mid-life, Dr. Bowman decided to stop navigating the skies and go to college. Fast-forward to eight years later: Dr. Bowman says she just took it semester by semester and earned her optometry degree from Pacific University College of Optometry. Today, she has successfully traded taking people up in her hot air balloon to refracting them in an exam chair.

I will be on Medicare by the time I pay off my student loans, but Im having a great time, Dr. Bowman says.

Dr. Bowmans story is one of a fearless spirit. Her pursuit of goals and achieving what she wanted professionally despite obstacles and even tragedies makes her the fifth installment in our series, Profiles in Excellence.

Grounding Her Former Career
Dr. Bowman hung up her 10-year career as a balloonist in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and decided to go to Colorado State University to earn her undergraduate degree. But, she didnt know what she wanted to study.

Also, taking the plunge into a new career and schooling when her classmates were fresh from their high-school senior proms came with trepidation. I was extremely scared, she says. I was afraid that I was going to fail.

She took out as many loans and applied for as much financial aid as she could, and went to school full-time. As for a major, she considered meteorology but fell back on what sparked her interest before she began her 10 years of ballooning over Colorado. Air had been my element, she says. I loved the fun the people had going up with me. It was a kick.

 But with ballooning now behind her, she decided on optometry as a college major, a field that had interested her years before.

While Dr. Bowman was in Florida finishing up her nursing degree in the late 1960s, she had worked for a baby-sitting company. One of her clients, an ophthalmologist, hired her after she earned her nursing degree. She later became a certified ophthalmic technician, got married, and moved to Georgia, where she worked for Metropolitan Eye and Ear in Atlanta. It gave me an unbelievable education in ophthalmology, she says.

Eight Long Years Ahead
Four years of undergraduate college followed by four more years in optometry school could be daunting for anyone, let alone a woman on career number three and in her 40s. But, not for Dr. Bowman.

 I never looked at the eight years ahead of me to become a doctor, she says. I broke it down semester by semester and tried to enjoy it.

After marrying her second husband, Dr. Bowman headed to Oregon and Pacific University College of Optometry. During her senior year tragedy struck repeatedly. With just one year left to become a doctor, Dr. Bowman suffered many losses and hardships: her father, aunt and father-in-law all died, and then her husband suffered a stroke. 

 The faculty and staff completely encouraged me not to quit, Dr. Bowman says, her voice cracking with emotion. They provided me tutors. They did everything they could to help me catch up. They were hugely successful in keeping me going on my path. It is very important to pick the right school.

She made it through the year and earned her degree. But now that she was officially an optometrist after years of hard work, she was in for a big surprise when she returned to practice in Fort Collins, Colo.

A Bumpy Ride
Dr. Bowman could not find a permanent position at a practice. So, she drove from Fort Collins to Denver as a fill-in optometrist. She worked for optometric chains, two-days a week in some places, and filled in for another colleague who was on maternity leave.

Dr. Bowman did this for seven years. During that period, she worked in 17 jobs, and was laid off three times.

After she got laid off from her last job, she couldnt find work for five months. Although she loved optometry, Dr. Bowman started to think of alternative careers out of necessity. I was ready to go back to Colorado State to get my masters in health and fitness, the exercise and triathlon enthusiast recalls.

But lunch with a friend changed all that.

The friend, an optometrist and owner of the Colorado Vision Center, lamented over lunch about the turnover of doctors at his practice. He offered Dr. Bowman a job, and today she is a partner. 

In hindsight, she offers this advice to new optometry school graduates: When you get out of school, get into a partnership and put some equity into it.
Her Latest Endeavor
Dr. Bowman today splits her time between Colorado Vision Centers two offices. She mainly comanages LASIK patients in Fort Collins and works with lower income patients in Greely, her favorite office. When I get those little kids into their first pair of glasses, it makes my heart sing, she says.

Her latest endeavor is creating a low-vision clinic that will serve northern Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Utah. The local Lions Club approached Dr. Bowman on spearheading the clinic. This year, she plans to visit and train in low-vision clinics in several major cities.

When shes not working with patients, Dr. Bowman serves on the National Board of Examiners. Last month, she went to Oregon to oversee a batch of hopeful students about to take their boards.

I tell them, take a deep breath. You know this stuff. Have fun doing this, she says.

Dr. Bowman doesnt regret the twists and turns in her life and believes each different choice led her to where she is today. I spent 15 years as a nurse, 10 years as a hot air balloonist, eight years in school and eight years in practice. It all happened so fast. 

Vol. No: 140:05Issue: 5/15/03