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Jerald Combs, O.D., advocate and mentor, passes away

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PHOTO CREDIT: Kentucky College of Optometry

Jerald F. Combs, O.D., is being remembered as a staunch advocate for optometry in his home state of Kentucky and the nation, and also a trusted mentor to many future doctors of optometry, after his passing Dec. 13, 2021, following a long illness.

Described as a vision-care pioneer in Kentucky, Dr. Combs served as president of the Kentucky Optometric Association (KOA) from 1988-1989. In recent years, the University of Pikeville-Kentucky College of Optometry named its clinic after him: The Dr. Jerald F. Combs Eye Clinic serves communities in central Appalachia and is a training ground for optometry students. He also is credited with changing “the landscape for optometric practice in the Commonwealth of Kentucky with his push for in-office, laser surgery,” according to the University of Pikeville website. Former chair of the AOA Advocacy Group Executive Committee, he was recognized with the AOA President’s Award for his exceeding commitment and service to advance the profession of optometry.

Over a long and distinguished professional career (1983-2019), he practiced primarily in Martin, but also in Hazard and Whitesburg. Upon his retirement, a plaque was hung in his honor at the AOA’s St. Louis headquarters. It reads: “Let’s Win! In honor of Jerald F. Combs, O.D., of Kentucky, a caring doctor, a relentless champion of optometry’s essential and expanding role in health care and a highly skilled advocate for health, vision and the future of his beloved profession.”

His resume speaks for itself, says TeShawna Sutton, O.D., KOA president and a cousin. His professional accomplishments and awards were well deserved, Dr. Sutton says.

Yet his dedication to the profession extended to supporting the college of optometry there because he wanted the people of rural Kentucky to have a place where they could learn and then provide care.

“If you talk to countless optometrists—including myself, my brother (Shane Barker, O.D.,) my associate doctor–we all credit him 100% for seeing us into the profession, seeing us through optometry school,” Dr. Sutton says. “He advocated so well for the profession that he made it look fun. He made it look great. He made it a fantastic profession for people to go into.

“Kentucky is an amazing place to practice optometry thanks, in large part, to his advocacy, his passion and constant relationship-building,” she adds. “He fought hard and he believed in this profession, in me. Once I got into really thinking about optometry, he just sealed the deal for me because he had such a love for it. I thought if he loves it this much then it would be a great thing to do.”

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Among his honors is KOA Optometrist of the Year twice and KOA Distinguished Service Award twice. Dr. Combs served on the Kentucky Board of Optometric Examiners from 2003-2017, including four years as its president.

He also was active with AOA advocacy, including 20 years with the AOA State Government Relations Committee and five years on the AOA Federal Legislative & Keyperson Committee.

William T. Reynolds, O.D., AOA immediate past president, had been a fellow warrior in optometry’s scope wars dating back to the 1980s and ‘90s.

“He was active in advocacy in Kentucky and throughout the country really,” says Dr. Reynolds, citing Combs’ advocacy on such issues as therapeutics, laser surgery and children’s vision. “He was an early proponent of doctors of optometry utilizing lasers and utilizing all of the skills they have learned and are capable of doing. He would go to Frankfort often and had multiple very good relationships with legislators, from the speaker of the house to the president of the senate to the governor. Every legislator in eastern Kentucky knew Jerald and regularly sought Jerald’s advice.

“What made him so good at advocacy was his love for optometry, his love for the profession,” he says. “He certainly loved politics and doing all that. But Jerald was someone who truly loved the profession and his patients, and he was always wanting to move the profession forward. You don’t get that every generation. He was a mentor to a lot of us. He mentored a whole generation of people who are active in the association now.”

Missing his presence

Dr. Combs served on the University of Pikeville Board of Trustees and its executive committee, but when the College of Optometry opened in 2016, he gave up his seat on the Board of Trustees to join the college’s faculty. He became a clinical preceptor at two outlying clinics where optometry students rotated through.

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In 2019, the Kentucky College of Optometry hosted a retirement event in his honor. The college’s dean, Michael Bacigalupi, O.D., says many distinguished individuals were in attendance.

“The KOA was there,” Dr. Bacigalupi recalls. “The AOA was there. Politicians from all over the state of Kentucky came in. We renamed our clinic in his honor. He was just really pleased and spoke. It was wonderful. A really great event to honor Jerald.”

Adds Dr. Bacigalupi: “I can’t imagine how many people I’ve met since moving to Kentucky four years ago that have said, ‘Jerald Combs is my mentor.’ Countless students who are now optometrists.”

What they all admired—students, colleagues and politicians alike—was Dr. Combs’ can-do spirit. Dr. Bacigalupi described Dr. Combs as being “this constant energy” for the profession.

“I think that is what inspired so many people to follow in his footsteps and go into the profession,” he says. “We will miss that. We will miss that presence  of always having such a positive goal for the profession. He just lived and breathed optometry, whenever you spoke to Jerald. Whether it was about his health, the weather or the day, the conversation always turned to how to improve and grow our profession. The college will miss him and we will try to carry on the clinic in his memory.”

A “ celebration of life,” originally planned for Jan. 15, 2022, has been postponed.

In 2019, the KOA announced the creation of the Jerald F. Combs Endowed Scholarship for future optometric students to attend the University of Pikeville’s Kentucky College of Optometry under his name. To donate to this endowment fund, you can give online at upike.edu/Giving, please indicate your donation is for the “Dr. Jerald Combs Endowed Scholarship Fund.” 

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