My name is Dr. Damaris Raymondi and I'm an optometrist. I grew up in Queens and both of my parents are Peruvian. My parents came to New York in the early 1980's. Like most stories of new arrivals, they had a cousin here and lived in his basement in the beginning for a few months. A few years later, I came along. My childhood was magical. We did everything, ate everything, it seemed like nothing was impossible. But then in 2006, my dad suffered from a mild stroke.
Doctors were unable to detect a cause. My dad was in great shape; he had no elevated cholesterol and excellent cardiovascular health. All he remembers from that day, is that he was driving when he suddenly he lost his memory. Somehow he was able to park in front of a Peruvian restaurant that seemed vaguely familiar to him. Thankfully, the people knew him and were able to direct him home. The following morning, he couldn't get out of bed so he went to the ER with my mom. I was a junior in high school at the time. For some time he was unable to work which was a problem since he was the breadwinner of our family. I hadn't worked before but this whole situation accelerated my introduction into the workforce.
I tried to apply to work at places like Duane Reade, Foot Locker, and CVS, but I never heard back because I was a 16-year-old with no work experience. I turned to my parents for help in seeking employment. My dad has a cousin who was the manager at a high-end restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Before I knew it, I was bussing tables during the lunch shift that summer. It was physically taxing work! I did not like it all (although it allowed me to develop an immense amount of respect for those in the restaurant industry) and I knew that it was not for me. So I tried applying to other jobs but was seeing no results. With no prospects I felt lost. Then something in my teenaged brain clicked as I thought, "Yoooooo, I need to hit the books hard this upcoming school year!" Yes, that is what I thought. And everything changed. I managed a perfect GPA and perfect attendance, something I had never done before.
Let me backtrack a bit, I went to an inner city high school in Queens. I'm sure it's much better now, but for those entire four years, us kids just sat there while teachers read newspapers at their desks during class time. They also didn’t bother to show up to parent-teacher conferences or even collect homework. I had to almost force my worksheets into their hands. The college office counselors literally told me, "I can't help you find applications for colleges, you have to do that on your own.” At one of our college fairs, I approached a table about becoming a science major and was told "Science? No way, you'll flunk right out.” So the deck was stacked against all of us. Somehow I reached this aforementioned epiphany before it was time to take the SATs. I got myself a workbook and got a decent score. Through sheer dedication I applied and was accepted to many colleges. I decided to stay close to home and attend St. John's University.
My four years at St. John's were the best of my life. All the professors and counselors were invested in my success and all were easily accessible through office hours. I was a Biology major in the pre-med track. It was in my Developmental Biology course where I learned about optometry. We had an adjunct professor for that class and she also happened to be an optometrist. It was my favorite class! I loved learning about the development of the optic pit and the lens. One day, she brought in information packets on how to apply to SUNY Optometry. That’s when I thought, “this is the career for me.” I haven’t mentioned that I've worn contacts since 7th grade. I absolutely loved going in for eye exams. It was always a lovely family experience. I remember how all of us would go in for our annual appointments dutifully. It was in those years that my parents got their first progressives. With the support of all of my professors and my passion for optometry, I applied to SUNY Optometry and got in. I was so happy. But when I stepped into those halls that first day, the imposter syndrome crept in.
Because my journey had been so linear up until that point, it was extremely difficult for me to be in a room where everyone else was just as smart, if not smarter than me. I thought, “Now where did I rank?” I couldn't help but think lowly of myself. There was also a slightly competitive atmosphere at school and that just wasn't previously in my nature. The professors had many roles, other obligations, and had abbreviated office hours. The volume of material was also a lot. I was in shock. I also had difficulty adjusting to the rigid class schedule. In college, I frequently signed up for 7 A.M. classes so that when 10 A.M. rolled around, I’d have the entire day to study or work. In optometry school, the class schedule takes up the whole day leaving little time to study a massive amount of material. That affected my experience and further added to my feeling of not belonging.
I was very overwhelmed. By this point, my parents were truly in uncharted territory and had no idea how to help me. But I kept them in mind and thought of all their sacrifices whenever I wanted to give up. It ended up being the most difficult four years of my life. It would signal the first time I heard the word no, the first time I didn't win, and the first time I needed to seek help. I knew I couldn’t rest until that glorious day at graduation. That feeling of elation and of completion. I was thrilled! I couldn't believe it! Everything that I worked so hard for all those years was finally coming true. While things have not been smooth sailing since then, everything is more than okay. I'm an eye doctor in a profession that allows me to help people on a daily basis. I've found my calling and there's truly no better feeling than living out your passion and dreams every single day. Because of my experiences, I like to always remind students in healthcare that yes, the hours are long, the work is difficult, and you will cry. But, being in a program is amazing and there is a light at the end of the tunnel that you simply have got to push through.
For my fellow Latinx, we don't have room to fail because there's nothing else and this is the only way out. While that might be a huge burden, that's okay because adversity is a huge advantage and it’s the very foundation of success. We are resilient. Our lives are the very definition of grit. We are afforded all the opportunities that we have here especially because our ancestors survived through so many things, they are counting on us. That's something I always tried to remember when taking any tests or during interviews. Now that I am practicing, I also think about the future generations, of all the young boys and girls who look like me. You can't be what you can't see. The fact that we are in these positions has more of an impact than we can even begin to realize.
As Latinx, we represent the past and present simultaneously. It’s that very dichotomy that not only allows us to thrive, but also allows us to enact change and shape what it means to be a Latinx en Medicina. Let's seize the day and make everyone proud because together we can accomplish anything!