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From Medellín to Medicine: Optometrist Marcela Frazier Built a Practice that Honors Her Heritage

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During her nearly two decades in Birmingham, UAB Callahan Eye Hospital and Clinics pediatric optometrist Marcela Herrera Frazier, OD, MSPH, has built a successful vision practice and touched the lives of countless children – especially in the local Hispanic community. A Colombian native, she’s earned the trust of the parents and patients alike, and today about 30% of them share her heritage.

“Twenty years ago, when I told parents that their child needed glasses, they wouldn’t believe me,” Dr. Frazier says. “They would say that they didn’t believe that their little kids’ eyes were broken yet.”

With patience, understanding, and speaking both Spanish and English, Dr. Frazier provided vision care to a community in need and helped change perspectives among many Hispanic families, who spread the word about her. The bond of trust she establishes makes patients more comfortable with her diagnoses and recommendations, while also helping them overcome some of the same challenges she faced as a child.

South American Roots 

Born to a single mom in the Andes Mountains city of Medellín, Frazier grew up in a happy, loving home but without the money needed for preventive medical and vision care – despite her mother’s best efforts to provide for her and her brother. She found herself struggling in school, where a sixth-grade teacher’s concern led to Frazier going to a free hospital in Medellín. There, volunteer foreign doctors helped patients from underserved communities, and a visit with an optometrist changed her life.

Frazier was diagnosed with severe nearsightedness, but after a proper prescription for eyeglasses, her confidence and abilities in school skyrocketed. During one of her visits to the eye clinic at the hospital, she saw a young boy come into the burn unit. As she watched the team of doctors and nurses tend to his injuries, Frazier decided that helping others was a passion she wanted to follow.

Frazier went on to earn a scholarship in biology, and just before her nineteenth birthday, she moved to the United States to study molecular biology at the University of Central Florida. When an optometrist spoke to her class, Frazier saw her future in eye care. After graduation, she moved to Birmingham to attend the UAB School of Optometry, where she also completed her residency. She had planned to return to Colombia, but Dr. Frazier and her husband decided that she could just as well help Hispanic children and their families right here in Birmingham.

“I had people in my life who helped me achieve many goals and reach my full potential,” Dr. Frazier says. “I decided that I wanted to find and help those little kids who might need to see better to reach their potential.”

A New Vision 

In early 2020, Dr. Frazier was approached by Mona Fouad, MD, MPH, director of the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine. Along with Drs. Fernando Ovalle and Sara Pereira, Dr. Frazier took on leadership roles in the UAB School of Medicine’s newly established Hispanic/Latinx Faculty Association. Her vision for that group is twofold and shares a similar mission as that of the School of Medicine’s Manos Juntas (“Helping Hands”) mentoring program, which was created about 15 years ago by one of Dr. Frazier’s UAB mentors, Isabel Scarinci, PhD, MPH.

For fellow doctors, residents, and prospective students, Dr. Frazier works to create a greater sense of community – one in which everyone feels understood and culturally connected. While still in Florida, she recalls friends and family asking her, “Are you sure you want to move to Birmingham?” After experiencing UAB for herself, Dr. Frazier connected with the university’s Hispanic community and wanted to strengthen the camaraderie within it.

Dr. Frazier also has a bold vision to improve the patient experience through the Hispanic/Latinx Faculty Association. She’s using that platform to build a community of Hispanic doctors who want to deliver better care to underserved populations. Thanks to this network of Spanish-speaking doctors, Dr. Frazier and other health care providers can refer patients to trusted doctors they more easily identify with.

“It is wonderful that many doctors are so willing to help underserved populations,” Dr. Frazier says, “but it would also be excellent to see more members of underserved populations become doctors.”