OD Soars to New Heights in U.S. Army

Dr. Rymer becomes first woman OD to reach rank of Colonel

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This story originally appeared in our March 2011 issue.

Col. Carol Z. Rymer, OD, MBA, FAAO, who reached her new rank late last year, is the first woman OD to reach that high level of leadership in the U.S. Army—and she did so in a relatively speedy 18 years. What is also remarkable about her career is that she didn’t initially seek an Army career—the military found her and made her an offer too good to refuse. At the beginning of her second year at Pacific University College of Optometry, the Army reinstated its Health Profession Scholarship program, which she accepted. “I’m so glad it stumbled across my path because I only owed them three years, and now here I am 18 years later.”

Today, Dr. Rymer is the Chief of Optometry Services for the Department of Family Medicine at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C, for which she oversees five optometry clinics. For a year and a half prior to her new position, she ran an outlying satellite health clinic at Fort Bragg. It was the first time an OD, not an MD, was in charge, she says. Dr. Rymer managed operations for 250 employees and 38,000 patient beneficiaries. “It was a fantastic opportunity to pull some of my skills together as I oversaw primary care, pediatrics, women’s health, chiropractics, pharmacy, lab, radiology, behavioral health and other services,” she says.

In fact, she has rotated through a variety of settings in her military career. Every few years, another mission arises, and she has filled in on a short-term assignment in Korea, too. “I’m challenged every few years to learn a new job and bring strategies that work from other assignments. We are continually evolving, finding new ways and new proficiencies. It’s really cutting-edge medicine,” Dr. Rymer says.

“We have state-of-the-art equipment, and we have access to extra care and testing without wondering if the patients can pay for it because soldiers and their families are medically covered,” she says. That means she can refer a patient on the spot to another medical professional, and she has open lines of communication with the other medical staff.

Dr. Rymer likes the lifestyle and benefits that a military career brings. For much of the past decade, she’s lived on military bases, which provide the advantage of living amongst a community of military families and being near to the school her daughter, now 7, attends.

In order to rise through the ranks as methodically as she has, she says, “it’s a matter of timing and opportunity. I try to accept every challenge that comes my way, and I strive to perform well at every assignment I get.” She credits mentors and commanding officers who listened and guided her, and she has networked with colleagues in the other branches of the military through the Armed Forces Optometric Society, along with other leaders in the professional optometry community.

For an OD, a busy Army clinic can be a hectic place. Fort Bragg, for example, has 180,000 patients among active duty military, their dependents and retired service members. That translates to about 250 patients a day coming through the optometry service. Along with providing patient care, Dr. Rymer ensures that customer service is outstanding, reviews and employs new risk management strategies, double checks coding of services and oversees the facility management. “One of my biggest contributions during my time at the satellite Primary Care Clinic was that we were significantly understaffed, and we conducted a huge hiring effort. We increased staff by 40 percent, improving patient access to care,” she says.

Being a military OD means that on top of the customary concerns of providing patient care and operating efficiently, there’s the added unknown of where your next assignment will be. Sometimes there’s advanced notice, but not always. When the Army needs you somewhere, you go, she says. For her, however, it’s led to a rewarding career and a distinguished achievement.