Dr. GonenAfter graduating from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), Abraham “Avi” Gonen, OD ’73, went to work for Dr. Richard Lubowitz, an ophthalmologist in Abington, Pa. At the time, the division between optometry and ophthalmology was wide.

But it was during his time working with Dr. Lubowitz that Dr. Gonen noticed something: He witnessed first-hand the benefits high-level eye care could provide if ophthalmology and optometry – and all the associated and related professions of eye care – cooperated to provide that care.

And, that planted a seed in Dr. Gonen, one that would eventually become his life’s work: Expanding optometry worldwide.

Dr. Gonen spent two years working with Dr. Lubowitz, and then was called to Israel – his home country – by the Israeli healthcare system to help with eye care. He was employed by one of the major hospitals in Israel and received practicing privileges, which included dispensing diagnostic and therapeutic drugs and admitting patients, something unheard of at the time for an optometrist in Israel.

“But I was the only one. It didn’t have any major effect on the system,” said Dr. Gonen.
He wanted to have a bigger impact on expanding optometric services in Israel as well as other countries. His next opportunity came soon thereafter when a few of his scientific articles on the topic were read by officials at the biggest ophthalmological hospital in Munich, Germany. They invited him to come to Germany.

Dr. Gonen - Commencement“Again, I realized that if optometry is put into the health system will all the privileges, how beneficial eye care could be,” he said. “But there was one problem. In order to work at this hospital legally, I needed a license to practice medicine in Germany.”

A seemingly impossible task. Fortunately, the director of the hospital, professor Dr. Otto Erich Lund, took Dr. Gonen to Germany’s minister of health and personally saw to it that Dr. Gonen had the appropriate license to practice at the hospital under Dr. Lund’s supervision.

“After that, things were easy for me. Again, I saw what the typical German optometrists did and how they functioned,” said Dr. Gonen. “So here was an opportunity for a qualified person to diagnose early all the eye problems that if left untreated, people would lose their vision.”

It was much of the same story when Dr. Gonen interacted with optometrists in Austria and Switzerland.

“I thought that something needed to be done,” said Dr. Gonen. “And, since I was trained by the best optometry school in the world, I thought I should be the one to do something about it.”
That opportunity would come when Dr. Gonen returned to PCO in 1994. In the early part of the decade, PCO had been involved in educating optometrists in Spain, and a strategic plan for advancing the profession of optometry worldwide was being developed by then-president Thomas Lewis, OD ’70, PhD; Anthony Di Stefano, OD ’73, who was PCO dean at the time; and Louis Catania, OD ’69, former director of what was then the Office of Continuing Education.
Dr. Gonen joined PCO as the director of Middle East/ European Programs to further develop the College’s international impact. And it was a perfect fit.

“Dr. Gonen had such a unique background that it was sort of a natural position for him,” said Dr. Lewis. “He is really an international person.”
Once Dr. Gonen received all the necessary green lights to expand optometry in other countries, and was guided by several principles: (1) To never tell the profession in another country what to do. They needed to define themselves and determine at what level they wanted to be. “We can advise, but not dictate,” said Dr. Gonen. (2) Once there was a meeting of the appropriate officials in each country, then a program would be tailored specifically for each country. (3) Transmission of responsibilities. Dr. Gonen did not believe PCO or Salus University should stay in each country and do this job forever. It was imperative to make sure that local faculty in each country were trained to take over responsibilities. In Norway, for example eight Master of Science in Clinical Optometry courses were taught over the course of 16 years. On the ninth course, they became totally independent. (4) Optometry is a medical profession that must be recognized by any government via third-party payment for optometric services. (5) Optometry cannot rely on the sale of goods, such as glasses or contact lenses, for its livelihood. Someone sometime somewhere will sell those goods cheaper. It’s a law of economics.

That approach resulted in a couple of good outcomes, according to Dr. Gonen. First, since optometry was different from country to country, the training was harmonized. For example, optometrists in Germany and Spain had the same training. Secondly, the training carried an academic degree, a very important aspect, because that meant acceptance and respect by authorities in each country.

Over his 23-year career at PCO, Dr. Gonen expanded optometry in 24 countries, including most of Europe, Israel, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and China.

Drs. Lewis and Gonen - 2009 Saudi Arabia Trip
It was the advancements he pushed for in Saudi Arabia that he believes had a particular impact. The students at Kind Saud University are kept strictly divided, with there being two of everything, one for men and another for women. A woman with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, though, did not have the same opportunities to advance her career inside Saudi Arabia.

“When we went to Saudi Arabia, on several occasions, the dean of the women‘s School of Optometry pleaded with us to do something with the Saudi authorities to help give the women an equal opportunity,” said Dr. Gonen. “But I was afraid that it wasn’t going to be looked on favorably by the Saudi authorities.”

After thinking about it for a while, Dr. Gonen came up with an idea: A program designed for the women’s School of Optometry, one that offered Saudi women the chance to learn at Salus University’s Elkins Park, Pa. campus and online, and earn a PhD in visual science, which Dr. Gonen hoped would open some doors for female optometrists in Saudi Arabia. To his knowledge, all the Saudi women who graduated from Salus with a PhD in visual science are now in key positions in the Saudi healthcare system.

“I want to believe that we had a say in the emancipation of women in Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Gonen. “I know that may be too presumptuous, but it was a big, bold step at the time to help erase discrimination where we could. And where we could was in education.”

But among his proudest achievements, Dr. Gonen believes, was leading the way to changing legislation in many countries, which was the direct results of training optometrists and having them earn a Master of Science in Clinical Optometry from PCO and then Salus University.

Drs. Gonen and Di Stefano
“Dr. Gonen has had an extraordinary impact on the advancement of optometry worldwide,” said Dr. Di Stefano. “His tireless dedication, resourcefulness and perseverance have had an historical impact on the legislative, political and professional recognition of optometry internationally. As a PCO classmate of Dr. Gonen’s, I was particularly proud to see him realize his longstanding dream of transforming the profession of optometry in Israel. His global impact will be enduring.”

Since retiring in 2017, Dr. Gonen has been keeping busy. And, not surprisingly, at something that he knows quite a bit about.

“My wife is a Parkinson’s patient, and she had a procedure done called deep brain stimulation surgery, which did not cure the Parkinson’s but made her completely symptom-free,” said Dr. Gonen. “The people that did the technique got friendly with us on a personal basis and when they heard what I did, they wanted to get my opinion on how they can market this (the technique) around the world. So we’re working on the first stages of putting together an academic program that would include all these aspects of Parkinson’s surgery.”

Dr. Gonen’s greatest hope is that Salus and PCO will continue to have a long-term commitment to expanding optometry around the world.

 “Around my apartment I have all these trophies from around the world that I look at and say, ‘Oh my, look what we’ve done here,’” he said.