Presidential Medal of Honor 2024: Jim Saviola, OD ‘85
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Presidential Medal of Honor 2024: Jim Saviola, OD ‘85

Jim Saviola at the piano with dog

In his house, Jim Saviola, OD, FAAO ‘85, has what he calls a “fancy” piano his wife and three daughters all play. About a year-and-a-half ago, Dr. Saviola wanted to do something outside work to “keep his brain working.” So, he took up piano lessons.

He was sitting at the piano recently for one of those lessons when his phone rang. He noticed that it was from the 215 Area Code and thought, “Oh, Philly.”

When he got home from his lesson, he checked the message and it was Salus president Michael H. Mittelman, OD ‘80, MPH, MBA, FAAO, FACHE, telling him he had been named a 2024 Presidential Medal of Honor recipient in recognition of his U.S. Public Health Service career (PHS). The PHS is a non-military uniformed service headed by the Surgeon General of the United States.

Dr. Saviola and four other medal winners will be honored at the annual recognition reception at 12:30 p.m., Sunday, June 2, at PineCrest Country Club in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. “I was very grateful and humbled - to receive that kind of recognition is certainly much appreciated. I always just felt like I was doing my job,” said Dr. Saviola.

Bernard Lepri, OD ‘79, MS, MEd, nominated him for the award. In his nomination letter, Dr. Lepri commended Dr. Saviola for carrying the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) flag through many professional arenas and giving tribute to PCO’s excellent reputation for training progressive optometrists.

“Most noteworthy is that Dr. Saviola has done all this with humility. You never hear him brag about his accomplishments,” wrote Dr. Lepri, a 2019 Presidential Medal winner. “He has contributed greatly to the advancement of optometry in patient care, public health, medical device regulation, his community, and his fellow optometrists.”

It’s a career that has included 31 years at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH)

where he worked on the cutting-edge of new products such as contact lenses and care products, managed projects within the Center Directors Office, and was the director of the Bioresearch Monitoring group in the Office of Compliance. Dr. Saviola also spent 30 years on the staff of Bethesda Naval Hospital — now Walter Reed Bethesda — providing specialty contact lens care and worked at a part-time optical store for seven years.

One of the things Dr. Saviola wants to share with young optometrists — as his career has illustrated — is that there are many opportunities for optometrists other than just opening their practice and seeing patients.

“I don’t want to characterize things too broadly, but there’s always a perception, in my mind at least, about those optometrists who don’t see patients, that there’s something wrong with that,” said Dr. Saviola. “I saw patients my whole career, but it wasn’t my main thing. I didn’t want to necessarily graduate and open a practice. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I wanted to do something else.”

He cites Dr. Mittelman as an example. While he was a clinician, Dr. Mittelman did significant things during his 33-year Naval career, that provided him with opportunities to develop other skill sets.

“I don’t think people really think about opportunities outside of regular everyday practice as much,” said Dr. Saviola. “And, in the PHS you had to do things other than see patients. Within the FDA, I had additional responsibilities beyond patient care that helped support my career progression in Public Health Service.”

Dr. Saviola said he stayed at the FDA so long because every few years, some new and interesting challenge would come along, and he had the opportunity to keep his mind active.

Since 2018, after retiring from the FDA, he has worked as a senior expert in regulatory and clinical affairs with the medical technology group at ZEISS, a German company with roots in the optical industry and now goes beyond medical technology. Beyond the consumer market of eyeglasses and camera lenses, binoculars, and scopes, ZEISS provides quality optics and metrology as a leading manufacturer of products for semiconductor manufacturing and engineering industrial applications.

In addition to the Presidential Medal, Dr. Saviola is no stranger to accolades. In 2009, he was named the Carel C. Koch Memorial Medal Award by the American Academy of Optometry (AAO), presented to a person who has made outstanding contributions to the enhancement and development of relationships between optometry and other professions; and in 2008, he was presented with the Roger Kame Award by the American Optometric Association (AOA)/CL Cornea Section, in recognition of a section member who has been a true innovator and leader in the field of contact lenses and anterior segment disease.

When he’s not being an optometrist, Dr. Saviola enjoys spending time with his family, loves dogs, and plays in pick-up ice hockey games with a bunch of guys in his age group.

He believes his career can represent to others that “traditional” optometry of full-time or most-time patient care is not the only option. “There are many research optometrists in many different companies working on intraocular lenses (IOLs), refractive lasers and other technologies. Students and graduates may not consider those types of options,” said Dr. Saviola.

“Physicians are employed in a wide variety of roles, I’d like to see optometrists know and understand that our profession has a multitude of opportunities available as well.”