The woman behind the President’s vision

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She was destined to be an optometrist the moment she came into the world, thanks to her father and paternal grandfather.

Dr. Vivian S. Sarabia’s name immediately recalls the first chain of optical shops in the country, so early on she learned to embrace her legacy and became determined to become anything but ordinary in her profession.

“I grew up in my family’s clinic, an ideal environment for optometry,” the 64-year-old Sarabia recalls. “That was why growing up, I never thought of any other career I had wanted to pursue.”

The optometry graduate of De Ocampo Colleges went on to learn about contact lens management at the University of New York, and put up her own clinic that eventually grew to a chain with four branches.

Sarabia says it was at the SM Megamall branch where she started a professional relationship with the late President Corazon Aquino, through whom she met President Noynoy Aquino and eventually became his personal optometrist and stylist.

She recounts: “I started with President Cory, who was referred to me by Kris Aquino. At that time, she had just stepped down as president and was wearing her signature oversized “Cory” glasses. She went to our Megamall branch with her daughters Ballsy (Cruz) and Kris. Then, they referred P-Noy to me.”

Back then, President Aquino was still a congressman, she says. “He would drop by the Megamall branch and became the patient of my son, Dr. Francis Sarabia-Ong.” Sometimes, she herself would attend to him.

“He would hang around the clinic and go malling while waiting for his glasses. Or, he’d sit it out and talk to the staff while waiting for his glasses.  He didn’t have any stylist then.  All he wanted was a simple eyewear.  Sometimes, he’d send us his old frame so we could change the lens.  Or, he’d ask us to just adjust his old glasses.”

Sarabia recounts: “We provided (the President’s) glasses until he became senator.  By then, he had a favorite line that poked fun at himself.  He would say, “Pinadala ako ng nanay ko dito kasi kailangan daw magpa-style na ko para maganda naman,  kasi senador na ako (My mother sent me over because she said I needed styling so I’d look good now that I’m a senator).”

Until he ran for president, Sarabia said she had styled P-Noy’s and (now Interior Secretary) Mar (Roxas’) eyewear for their campaign.

“During his oath-taking as president, I was with Liz Uy and (designer) Paul Cabral for his overall styling. Hindi siya maarte.  Isusuot niya kahit ano ibigay namin (He wasn’t fussy.  He’d wear whatever we gave him).  I have been styling P-Noy all those years to this day.  We made all his glasses.”

As a president, P-Noy’s eyeglass needs are very specific, Sarabia notes.

“I choose something simple but elegant enough so that when he goes abroad, he would look the part-a presidential look that does not overwhelm his personality. And with him being a bachelor, dapat guwapo  (he must look good). I want my president to look good.”

Being the President’s personal optometrist has raised her profile in optometry, something she has harnessed to encourage more Filipinos to enter the lucrative field that, unfortunately, many people look down on, regarding it as more of a craft than a medical discipline.

For Sarabia, nothing can be farther from the truth.  In fact, optometry is such an overlooked field that so many Filipinos have been deprived of this service, she adds.

“There are 90 million Filipinos but there are only about 10,000-plus registered optometrists. And that includes my grandfather and the rest of the optometrists who have passed away. We can estimate that 5,000 are still alive. Let’s say 2,000 of them are abroad. That leaves the country with 3,000 practising licensed optometrists,” says Sarabia, who chairs the Optometry Board of the Professional Regulations Commission.

“This is why I’m passionate about career advocacy. By 2015, foreign professionals would be able to practice in the country. Shouldn’t Filipino optometrists be the first to provide service to their countrymen?  But we’re in dire need of Filipino optometrists, especially in rural areas,” she notes.

Sarabia says that optometrists play a key role in keeping Filipinos healthy and happy as they literally help people see the light.

“Imagine, people could have contributed something important to the world, but for their inability to see well.  What a difference the right pair of glasses would have made,” says Sarabia, who co-hosts the “PRC Professional Hour” on dzRJ and talks about career advocacy and the different professions covered by the PRC.

Advocacy work takes up a good part of her time these days, but it was not always so. There was a time in Sarabia’s life when she was all about leading the glamorous life. Being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in June 2003 put an end to her living in the material world.

“I was so into the world of material things-looking good and going nowhere. Then I got sick.  You’d think you were superwoman and never worried about your health.  But cancer was a wake-up call for me. I needed to go through a life-changing situation to realize what’s more important-taking care of and loving yourself.

“Binenta ko lahat ng jewelry ko (I sold all my jewelry) because they were useless. Before I got sick, I thought I had to dress up, I had to look glamorous. I realized those were just labels. Remove everything and you’re nothing. Kung huhubaran mo tayong lahat, pare-pareho lang tayo (Strip us and we’re all the same),” says Sarabia, who endured chemotherapy and surgery to keep cancer at bay. She is on her 10th year of being cancer-free.

It was also after her bout of cancer that she started fostering children for the Parenting Foundation. She takes care of babies until they are adopted.

“As I foster the child, I build the concept of family for him or her. The formative age of a child starts during the first two years of his or her life. How they are when they’re 40 years old can be traced back to how they were treated when they were 2 years old.

“When you foster a baby, it’s not just about milk and diapers. It’s all about loving a baby and the hugs that you give, which will make him or her a good person in the future,” says Sarabia.

She says her children support her wholeheartedly on this and have all learned to love the fostered babies, while learning to let go of the children they have grown to love.

“When it’s time for the foster parents to take the child, I give them a hope chest that I had been putting together since the baby entered my home. It contains the baby’s first socks, hair from the first haircut, albums, and everything else that will be reminders of his or her roots. When you take care of another person like that, I think mas malaki pa ang naitulong mo kaysa sa milyonaryo na nagbibigay ng (you’ve done more than a millionaire giving a) big amount to a foundation,” says Sarabia.

These efforts are expressions of her firm belief that family should come first, she adds.

“I always tell people, love your children and take care of them. Enjoy this life with your children and tell every person in your life how much you love them,” says Sarabia, “When I got sick, I accepted it immediately. I feel blessed that something like this happened to me, that it changed my life.

“Success is part of the package, but you should not be attached to it so that when you lose it, you’d be fine. When you get sick, you see your mortality. Then you change your life and start living in the now.”

And living in the now for Sarabia means doing everything she can for the optometry field.  As she stresses, a simple eye exam can make a difference in somebody’s life.

“There are workers who stop their jobs at 40 to 45 years old just because they have problems with their eyesight. Yet all it takes is an eye exam and eyeglasses. Students in elementary grades are perceived to be lazy or dull, when a simple eye exam can determine the problem and the  solution. A child’s confidence can easily be destroyed at this stage when all he needs is a pair of glasses,” says Sarabia, whose vision for a better future hinges on “more Filipinos realizing the need to take care of their eyes.”

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