To many people, there’s not a lot to see in a small town like Fort Loramie, Ohio. A few stoplights. A main street a couple of blocks long. A single-screen movie theater.
But in reality, there are things to see in small towns that you just don’t see in other places. Like handshake agreements. People working an 80-acre farm…in their spare time. Grass fields with five spots in a diamond pattern that have been bare for generations. A marching band with musicians from teenagers to senior citizens.
And little girls dreaming big dreams that are actually small at their very heart.
In the middle of family
The theory says that middle children are people pleasers who thrive on friendships. They have large social circles and form relationships outside the family that are just as solid as those inside—often even more so. They’re level-headed, mediators, and peacemakers. And they often have trouble saying no.
Karen Fortman is a middle child.
Bonnie Puthoff and Frank Turner met in school, graduated in 1960, and started building a family soon after. Karen followed a sister and a brother and would be followed in the coming years by two more brothers. Her whole life was spent firmly in the middle of family—and there’s no place she would rather be.
Columbus isn’t New York or Tokyo, but it’s a place that many in Ohio choose to pursue their big dreams. After graduating high school as Fort Loramie’s valedictorian, and with her father’s long career in the school system in mind, Karen took advantage of a state program that provided scholarships to prospective STEM teachers and followed her older brother and sister east to The Ohio State University. Only one thing stood in her way of becoming a fine and dedicated math teacher.
For the first time in her academic career, she struggled to master a subject. “I thought, ‘If I can't teach this... If I can't understand it myself, how am I going to teach my students?’ And I was having a hard time that first quarter with feeling like I was not capable.”
But math’s loss turned out to be optometry’s gain. A fellow student living on her floor was a sophomore studying to be an optometrist and their friendship planted a seed for Karen of pursuing the career herself. After attending the optometry club and an overview of the profession given by the Dean, Karen decided it could be a good fit with her overall dream—to return to Fort Loramie; to marry Jim, her high school sweetheart; and to balance a career with raising a family.
“By the end of my first year, I had made the decision to take all the prerequisite courses that would allow me to apply to optometry school someday. That summer, I asked my optometrist’s office if they needed any summer help—and of course I needed a summer job. And they hired me.”
It began a relationship that would last a bit longer than the fleeting Ohio summer.
“Service and giving back to my community weren’t things that I thought were important at the time. But I soon realized I loved getting that knock on the door with someone who lives down the road saying, ‘Hey, I was just out mowing. I've got something in my eye.’”
Community in focus
Leaving the idea of teaching behind her, Karen and Jim got engaged and after graduation, she returned to Fort Loramie and a job with Primary EyeCare Associates, the practice she had gone to as a child and worked at as a college student. It provided just what she had wanted for both career and family. But it also provided things she never expected.
“Service and giving back to my community weren’t things that I thought were important at the time. But I soon realized I loved getting that knock on the door with someone who lives down the road saying, ‘Hey, I was just out mowing. I've got something in my eye.’ And instead of going to the office, I'll have him lie on my recliner and take it out in my living room. I like being available. I like giving people relief for their eye pain and their vision problems.”
One day, the “knock” was actually a weekend phone call from an acquaintance concerned about his 12-year-old son. Jim Meyer asked if he should be concerned that Deegan closed one eye and moved the phone around to read a text message. “It didn’t sound like something we wanted to ignore, so I asked them to meet me at the office.” The procedure called for Deegan to have his pupils dilated but Deegan didn’t want to miss his team’s basketball game. They then tried to schedule for Monday evening. But as important as the exam was, the Buckeyes playing in the national championship game was important in a way that only someone from Ohio can understand. So, they met on Tuesday night to see why Deegan was having trouble seeing.
What Dr. Fortman saw worried her. Swelling around Deegan’s optic nerves was responsible for his trouble reading. But what was responsible for the swelling? “I let them know that I was going to put them in good hands to determine if this swelling was due to an infection, which I didn't suspect, or something else.” Having faced her own diagnosis of breast cancer a few years before, she knew how frightening the uncertainty could be and how important her handling of the situation was. “They left my office and immediately went to Cincinnati without even packing a bag to get some answers and some peace of mind as quickly as possible.”
Deegan was soon diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery followed and today there is no sign that he ever had childhood cancer. He’s a student at the University of Cincinnati with the brightest future ahead of him, due in part to the fact that his father didn’t hesitate to call the optometrist on a weekend afternoon—and she didn’t hesitate to see them.
A baseball practice
Primary EyeCare Associates grew over the years to include three offices in the area. There was never a written contract with her partners because such formalities aren’t necessary in places like Fort Loramie and with people like Dr. Fortman and her partners. That’s big city stuff. Over handshake agreements, the practice thrived.
As Primary EyeCare grew, the partners acquired a building that housed a gym—2,500 square feet of warehouse space with high ceilings and rubberized floors. It was nice to have a gym, but Dr. Fortman wanted something more.
“I’ve always had an interest in taking what we do with vision therapy and making it specific for the sports of baseball and softball. My little brother is Fort Loramie’s softball coach and another brother is his assistant. My son played baseball throughout childhood, and recently, the head coach of the baseball team asked me whether I thought it would be beneficial for all of his players to get eye exams. I said of course it would. Then he asked, ‘What would it take, if I could get the boosters to pay for it?’ And I said, ‘I'll be their vision coach. I'll volunteer.’”
With interest all around, ultimately IDOC—and Dream It. Do It. Share It.—played key roles in turning this ordinary gym into Refocus, a vision performance training center. “Through IDOC and her story, I’ve been following Jen Stewart and her sports performance business.” Based on her own successful sports vision business, Dr. Stewart provided advice and connections that have helped Dr. Fortman purchase equipment, set up the facility, and get her fledgling training center off the ground.
Of course, Dr. Fortman wants the facility to be financially successful, but her first thought is to help others—and her community. “The baseball players are going to be my first patients and we're going to learn from each other. I'm going to provide what I think will improve their visual clarity, their contrast sensitivity, their depth perception, their reaction time, and their hand-eye coordination. Coach Jeff and I are looking to give his team a competitive edge so that they can go out and win another state title for Fort Loramie.”
It might seem like a small dream when compared to some, but it’s just the right size for a woman who still washes the football team’s laundry, even though her son has graduated and no longer suits up for the squad.
Dreams of the future
For all of its quaintness and quiet, a small town doesn’t mean small opportunity. A decade ago, Dr. Fortman had growth on her mind and turned to IDOC to help make it a reality.
“I wanted to find other mentors outside of Primary EyeCare. I wanted to see how other doctors were thriving in independent eye care. And I was really interested in expanding our Fort Loramie office. We practiced out of about 800 square feet and had only one exam room.”
With IDOC’s guidance, Dr. Fortman and her partners were able to see the advantages that a larger facility would mean for their practice. It led to a more expansive building and the space that would eventually become the aforementioned Refocus. It also led to a close and ongoing partnership with IDOC.
“We just continued to take more and more advantage of the relationship. We now utilize their HR support and I've attended a number of national meetings and become friends with other doctors in Ohio who are members. And every once in a while, one will call me and say, ‘Hey, I heard this was going on. Thought you might like to know.’ Just people looking out for each other.” Just like people in a small town do.
All the while, growth was happening in another, even more rewarding way. When Karen found optometry in college, she realized it would be an ideal way to forge a meaningful career and raise a family. That came to include a son, Mack, and a daughter, Maddi.
Maddi is now a student at Ohio State studying optometry. And her dreams are still only ideas and images, waiting to fully form. Perhaps they’ll take shape as a plan to return to Fort Loramie to take over Primary EyeCare Associates and be the next generation to serve the needs of the community. Or perhaps she will move to a big city far away from the farm fields and the weekend knocks on the door. Whatever she chooses, the whole world is open to her.
And in its own way, that is Karen’s ultimate dream fulfilled.
If you haven’t watched Dr. Fortman’s story, be sure to click here: