AMY CLARKE, FREELANCE MARKETING STORYTELLER
As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, we'll profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
“I think it’s really important not to go backward, I think we need to be safe,” says Deborah DiStefano, the founder of DiStefano Eye Center and DiStefano Medical Spa, both in the East Brainerd area of Hamilton County. Wearing a mask, a shield and goggles, doing temperature checks, practicing social distancing, along with extra sanitizing and air purification systems, DiStefano and her whole team are doing everything they can to provide eye care and services to customers safely and keep the two businesses open.
“I would say we are 90% there. Overall people have been cooperative, no one likes wearing masks, but everyone understands we are trying to keep them safe, keep myself safe and the rest of my staff,” DiStefano says. “For me, it’s a lot more of an ordeal to be a doctor, but at least it's helping people and I love what I do. It’s a good thing.”
Knowing that her patients would still need care during the height of the lockdown, DiStefano and her business partner found ways to provide needed services. They alternated weeks of being in the office and turned to telemedicine, using Zoom, Skype, Facetime and even sharing simple photographs to help them see what was going on with their patients’ eyes.
“I think patients were grateful, really grateful we were at least here,” DiStefano says. “We didn't totally leave. We were here for them so they could call if they had any kind of emergency.”
With limited staff at the eye center and the med spa completely shut down for six weeks, DiStefano and her business partner lined up a plan to help their employees. They made sure they had access to unemployment benefits until the PPP loans came through.
“I have a lot of single moms that work for me and it’s hard to be without funds a week or two,” she says. “I have good people working with me. They are more like family. If you are good to people, they are good to you, mostly.”
It’s a philosophy that has worked well for DiStefano. After leading the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s (UTC) Department of Ophthalmology for ten years, training residents at Erlanger to be future eye doctors, she left academics to start her own business 25 years ago.
“I didn't love the politics of academics. I am good at taking care of patients, and doing surgeries. And I decided I needed to control my own life. I never really had business training, but I knew if you are a good doctor and take care of patients well, the money would follow. I worked really hard and I loved what I did so it wasn't really a job.”
As the daughter of a surgeon, DiStefano grew up with a father who was a fantastic mentor. From as early as age 6, she knew she wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“Instead of playing with Barbies … we would dissect turtles, take their hearts out and put them in different solutions to see how long we could keep them beating,” DiStefano says. It was research and she loved it.
“We would do all of that kind of stuff together, and I just found it really fascinating. He was really good and he would take me on rounds to the hospital when I was a teenager.”
From there, her life in the medical field took off. She started as a Candy Striper, learned to draw blood and then landed in a research lab. Early on in college, her research interest and capabilities connected her with opportunities to do more research, and for the first time she started focusing on the eye.
“I always knew I wanted a surgical option. I wasn’t sure it would be eyes, but it was interesting … there was a strong female in my medical school that was doing a lot of eye research and she wanted me to do research with her. Then I was asked by the head of ophthalmology to go into that department. In the 80s and 90s, ophthalmology was hard to get into at that time. I was one of the few females.”
Following medical school, DiStefano did her residency at Harvard where she became a cornea specialist and then landed here at UTC and Erlanger as head of the ophthalmology department. She was one of the first female department chairs. Coming from Boston, she was exposed to lots of medical innovation and milestone surgeries that she brought to Erlanger. In 1988, she performed the first double cornea transplant on a young woman with an eye disease. Doctors had told her they would have to remove her eyes but DiStefano felt a cornea transplant could save her sight.
“I did a cornea transplant on each eye and she went on to graduate to be a nurse and be able to see,” DiStefano says. “I saw her just a few weeks ago, and she has a family. There are studies that show people would rather die than lose their sight. We are all a genius at what we do. We just have to figure out what that is. Find it out and then do it.”
For now, DiStefano has no plans to retire, but she would like to use her skills and help those in great need.
“I think about my next phase, my big dream… I was supposed to go to Africa to help with children there. I have a friend who has built schools and orphanages. I would really love to do that. I feel a need to do more and help in other places but with COVID, it’s hard.”
Until then, her best advice to other small business owners, the heart of the country, is to just try to keep going.
“This may be through downsizing for a while or changing the structure of your business. Most small business owners are innovative and can come through these difficult times. Hopefully, things will get better in the not so distant future, and I wish everyone the best in rebounding from these challenges.”
I help companies find the stories that show the heart behind their brands and ultimately connect them to the people that matter the most for their business growth and success.