As they say, everything happens for a reason. I’ve truly believed that and feel that every opportunity or obstacle that has been handed to me, has been given so that I can learn something from it. Whether it’s a high stress job, a bad relationship or a book that turned my eating habits upside down. (If you read the book "Slaughterhouse” in entirety, you’ll never lay a hand on meat ever again. This coming from bacon’s biggest fan!) I should probably introduce myself. My name is Laura Bufalini and I’m an Ophthalmic Photographer working at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, Colorado. It was a long journey getting here, but I think it makes for a decent story! So here goes:
I went to the college for Creative Studies where I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography. Although I had always thought I’d be pursuing a career in the medical field, I decided against it and followed my love for photography instead. Little did I know that I could be doing both! While I was in school (and to this day) I was obsessed with taking extreme close ups of anything and everything I could find, from flowers, to food, (see artichoke below)
to any texture that I found interesting. But I could never find the right lens to get me quite close enough to my subject…that was, until the last year of school when I began taking biomedical photography classes. I decided against the degree in biomedical photography because a teacher of mine had told me that jobs were scarce in that field and I would be better off making a career in the fine art photography field. (Go figure!)
After I graduated from college with a BFA in photography, I worked as a photo retoucher and work flow manager at an automotive photography studio in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Since the studio was so close to the Chrysler headquarters (and because we had amazing photographers and retouchers, of course!), we got heaps of work from them. GM was also one of our biggest clients at the time. Our photographs were used for press kits, auto shows, advertisements, magazine layouts and even magazine covers. It was a challenging job for me in that I had to manage a team of photo retouchers. My job was to figure out who was best at different retouching skills and making sure that the jobs were delegated in such a way that the end product was done well, and done well as quickly as possible. This was difficult for me in the beginning because I had usually steered clear of any sort of job where I would be a leader. Maybe it was because I was shy, or maybe I didn’t believe in myself enough. Clearly, I had not understood the job that I had applied for! I had surprised myself by passing the timed retouching test and surviving the longest interview known to man. Perhaps I had gone to my happy place for a moment when my new boss was telling me I’d be in charge of two other people…Nevertheless, I took the job and pushed through that ultimate fear of being (partially) in charge. This long winded, terrifying boss ended up teaching me more about life and myself than anyone I had ever known; he became like a second father to me. He taught me that I could push through my fears, to stand up for myself, and to believe in myself. He taught me that I should graciously accept compliments instead of passing it off to someone else. He taught me how to work better under pressure and how to work with difficult clients. He also taught me how to lay concrete. I’ll always be grateful to him for pushing me over the edge and facing many of my fears. Who knew that could all be done while working at a photo studio!? Below is one of my favorite retouching jobs that we worked on in the studio: We combined the first two images to produces the third one. We playfully nicknamed this European jeep "Death Dawg.”
When Chrysler and GM went bankrupt, the work coming in began to dramatically slow down and most of us got laid off, which led to my new career choice, that being an Ophthalmic Photographer! A friend from college called me out of the blue telling me there was a position open at a hospital in Detroit and told me I should apply. I sent in my resume that night and got the job a few weeks later. Finally, I could take those extreme close-up photos I’ve been trying to get for years and be involved in the medical field!! I loved working with the eight other photographers. I had no idea how much there was to know about the eyeball, so I had a lot of studying to do. One photographer in particular got me really interested in learning about OCTs, fundus photos and fluorescein angiography. She was always patient with me and answered my endless supply of questions in such a way that I always wanted to know more. She inspired me to read more at home and learn whatever I could to advance in this career. I was impressed with her eagerness and knowledge and still strive to be more like her.
This new career was challenging in new ways; I had to get certified in CPR, learn how to use a slew of different cameras and also learn to be proficient at giving injections. I was up for the challenge- it was refreshing to be running around all day and not be sitting behind a desk. I had to learn how to deal with a different type of "difficult client.” How do you get an elderly, hard of hearing patient who can barely reach the chinrest, with poor vision, to focus on a miniscule dot and hold their eye open for 6 seconds?! We all have these challenges at work, I’m sure you all have had that patient! Below is a composite photo I took back in Detroit:
Fast forward a year and a half…on a whim, I applied for a job in Denver after visiting Colorado for a wedding. I loved it there so much, I was willing to give up everything to move there. I only applied for one job, thinking it was a shot in the dark. The hospital was asking for a Certified Retinal Angiographer and someone with more experience than myself. I was a four months away from taking my CRA exam and a year and a half away from the amount of experience they were looking for. To my surprise, a week later I got a call from a wonderfully cheery woman, inviting me out for an interview. I honestly thought I didn't have a chance in the world, but I knew I needed to give that interview all that I had. I flew out to Denver a week later and was offered the job at the end of my interview. I cried tears of joy, sitting on the park bench in front of my new job, telling my parents that I would be leaving Michigan. I was sick of Michigan. I felt there was nothing left there for me. Everyone else was off having their own adventures, it was time for an adventure of my own! What did I have to lose? My boyfriend of a year and a half that had been supportive of my dreams, suddenly couldn't believe that I'd move half way across the country without him. (He is in a master’s program that he wouldn't complete until August 2012, a year from the day I got the job offer.) On September 10, 2011, Craig (my boyfriend and master of Tetris) packed everything I owned into my Jetta. The two of us drove from Detroit to Denver (with a detour for some sight-seeing and a few panic attacks) in 24 hours. Below is a photo of us on one of our detours:
The next day, Craig and I had our last breakfast together (with a minor panic attack in there as a side to my breakfast!) and I took him to the airport so that he could head back to Detroit. I don't think I've ever cried so hard in my life. It will be five more months until Craig joins me in Denver.
My new job was stressful, and I wasn't very excited with the new equipment I was working with. I missed our old cameras back in Detroit. Even though they were older, I knew how to use them and get decent photographs out of them. I felt like no matter what I did, I could not get a sharp photograph on our fundus camera. On top of that, I had to learn how to do anterior and posterior ultrasounds, Electroretinograms (ERG), Visual Evoked Responses (VER), and Visual Evoked Potentials (VEP). Did I mention that I had just moved to a new city, was living in a friend’s basement and didn’t have a home yet? Once again, I was up for the challenge. I put on a happy face and tried my hardest to keep up with the busier clinic and new machines. Here is one of my first ultrasounds, a total choroidal detachment:
It’s been six months and my new job has gotten much better. Surprisingly, I've been able to crawl out of my shy, hermit shell and actually ask the doctors for help and advice, which has definitely improved my understanding of my job and also helped me to create more of a connection with my co-workers. (Can I call a doctor my co-worker?) Also, the equipment I was not so fond of is slowly growing on me. I’m sure most of the problem was user error, but I would still give up a few toes for a new fundus camera!
In the end, I feel like everything leading up to now in my life was preparing me for my journey here. From the schooling in photography, the job that pushed me out of my shell and forced me to be more aggressive, the job in Detroit where I had eight amazing teachers to give me a great start to my new career, my wonderful and supportive family and boyfriend, and ultimately the wedding that by chance led me to this beautiful land of Colorado.
Laura Bufalinigraduated from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Photography. She is a CRA who started her career at Henry Ford Hospital. She is currently working in Denver, Colorado at the University of Colorado Hospital at the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute.