Meet Marie of Marie Allen Ocularist
As one of Canada’s few Board-certified ocularists, Marie is a second-generation practitioner working in partnership with her husband Rob. Together they continue to grow their practice and inspire yet a third-generation to carry on the family business. We caught up with Marie and her daughter Heather to hear about the art and science of their work, as well as lessons learned when building a family business from the ground up.
First of all, what exactly does an ocularist do?
We design and fabricate artificial eyes.
Fascinating work. How does one go about creating an eye?
There are numerous steps. We develop a pattern and shape by taking an impression of the socket. Then we spend several hours with the patient actually hand-painting a portrait of the miniscule details of their other eye and iris so we can design their prosthesis to be as close as possible to their natural eye. Behind the scenes there’s a tremendous amount of time that goes into lab work, polishing, and fitting.
What patients do you see?
We see people from every walk of life. Our youngest patient was 16 days old, and the oldest was over 100 years old. Our patients are mainly from BC and Yukon, but some have come from as far away as Malaysia, China and Hawaii. They come to us for a variety of reasons – cancer, traumatic injuries, glaucoma and diabetes, to name a few.
How did you choose this profession?
Initially it was my father who inspired me. He was an ocularist with the BC Cancer Agency and actually established the prosthetics department here in Vancouver.
I was always interested in what my Dad did. After finishing my undergrad at SFU in the early 1980s, I studied and trained in England. Then I came back home, trained with Dad for a few years and then established my own practice. Dad worked in an institutional setting but I started my own business in 1986 from ground zero with an empty file cabinet. Now we have the opposite problem!
In 1990 I was far too busy so my husband decided to leave his job, train as an ocularist and work with me to serve the patients who needed our help. We opened a second office in Burnaby and he’s been there for 24 years.
And now our daughter Heather, here with me today, is in her third year of internship with me. She initially trained as an optician and it will probably be another six or seven years before she’s fully certified. There’s a great deal of learning that goes into this line of work.
Words of wisdom for entrepreneurs just starting out?
Well, the very first thing is to be mindful about how many hours you put in and be firm about setting boundaries on that. You need a balance between family life and your natural enthusiasm about setting up your own business.
Second, be careful on your overhead. It might sound obvious but you have to make sure you’re going to be profitable.
Third, get a good accountant. If numbers aren’t your forté you’ll get into trouble. Know your skillset and where your strengths are – and hire professionals to set you on the right path.
Our readers may think we prompted you on that. [laughs]
Not at all, I firmly believe it! And fourth, a piece of advice I got from a doctor who was extremely good at what he did. Never let your tools or equipment impact the quality of your work. Buy the best quality tools and equipment you can afford at the time. I think that probably applies to any business.
What makes you passionate about what you do?
Helping others is an obvious reason to love this work. A person’s eye, as part of their face and appearance, has a huge impact on how they move about in the world. Without an eye people feel extremely self conscious, and when we create an ocular prosthesis for them it helps restore a sense of normality.
In this profession it’s not only the unique combination of medical science, business sense and artistic skills that make things interesting but there’s a profoundly human side to our work that’s very fulfilling. So many people and families that come through our doors have been through some really devastating accident or disease and we’re kind of the final step. We try to walk the patient through all aspects showing that we really care, and we do. I’m still passionate about this after 35 years.
Heather, what’s it like working with mom and dad?
[Heather] Fortunately we have a great relationship and I love working with them. Because we communicate so naturally, there’s almost a shorthand we can use to get things done more efficiently. Companies are always trying to help their teams work better together and we already have that.
What inspires you as a young professional?
[Heather] I’m really passionate about being able to set up clinics in third world countries at some point in the future. People suffer terribly there without an eye, sometimes as a result of unique cultural standards, where they are shunned from society or prevented from getting an education. I’d love to help those people improve their lives. It’s part of what drew me to this profession.
And on an everyday basis I look to some of the women in my life for inspiration, especially my Mom opening up her own business. She’s a powerhouse and a huge example to me. I’m only 21 years old and at this point people might be uncertain about my abilities. But I feel I can prove myself by the quality of our work. I was taught that we should use our gifts and abilities to really look at the world and then have the confidence to rise to the occasion.
Words to live by.
Marie Allen Drennan is the founder of Marie Allen Ocularist Ltd., where she works with her partner Robert Drennan and their daughter, Heather Drennan.