Michaela Hellinga always knew she wanted to work with eyes.
Born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, Hellinga said that science and the particularities of the human eye have always fascinated her.
“I have always wanted to be an optometrist,” she said.
“I did my Grade 7 science fair project on the eye. And I’ve always wanted to help people, so optometry is kind of the perfect marriage of the two.”
Now Dr. Michaela Hellinga, she is the new associate optometrist at Lidkea Optometry in downtown Fort Frances, helping to take care of the vision and eye health of countless people in the district and beyond.
Hellinga noted that because she knew early on she wanted to become an optometrist, she was able to ensure through her schooling that she was ready for the next step of the process, from high school to bachelor’s degree to finally enrolling in the University of Waterloo’s esteemed optometry program, one of only two optometry schools in Canada, and the only one in English.
“Looking forward to high school, I took mainly science courses and geared towards a biomedical degree as my undergrad, and then I went into undergrad with the intention of applying to Waterloo as soon as possible,” she recalled.
“After three years, I applied to Waterloo, just because it was the earliest I could, and I was very fortunate that I was able to get accepted.”
From an initial applicant pool of thousands to a final cohort of 90 students, the process is involved and complicated, but ultimately leads to qualified optometrists entering the field. Of course, before they can do that, many of the Waterloo students go out for externships or student placements that allow them to continue learning while working in their chosen field. For Hellinga, that brought her to Fort Frances and Dr. Bruce Lidkea. Following her placement here in Fort Frances in 2022, and another placement following, when Lidkea asked her to return as an associate, she was happy to accept.
“One of the main reasons I chose this as an externship when I was a student is I’ve always wanted to work rural,” Hellinga said.
“I’ve always wanted to work in northern Ontario, at least to try it out. I’ve always actually wanted to work with First Nations communities. That was a big draw to me for trying it out here. So then when Dr. Bruce asked me to come back, I had just loved being part of the community, and felt like I could really help them make a difference here as well.”
As an associate, Hellinga is not a partner in Lidkea Optometry. Rather, she is akin to an independent contractor, fully qualified as an optometrist, but still something of an individual within the framework of the clinic. Still, Hellinga can work with district residents who need eye care or support, and still plans to expand on the kinds of services she can bring to the district, including potentially bringing eye care to those in remote communities.
“I would like to, and am working on getting in contact with the necessary people to set up [going to fly-in communities],” she said.
“I am currently on the board for a nonprofit that goes to Jamaica every year and provides free eye care services twice a year to those that are under-serviced there. And then I am just in the process of getting privileges to go practice in Nunavut for trips every year, because you can imagine how rural it is here, it’s even more remote there. It’s funny, I travel to Jamaica and I’m looking into Nunavut, which are so far away, but even within a three-hour plane ride there’s communities here that need help. That’s a goal of mine.”
Hellinga exudes passion in regards to her field and chosen profession, referring to herself as a lifelong learner who looks to Dr. Lidkea as a mentor, eager to learn on the job and beyond in order to keep current on optometric knowledge and practice. Lidkea himself noted that she will make for an excellent addition to the team at Lidkea Optometry.
“I’ve had 25 students from the University of Waterloo come through my clinic,” he said.
“I can say with no reservation that Michaela is a rock star. She was a top-level student. Not only did she come here for a rotation, she went to another excellent clinic for her other clinical rotation. She’s a very welcome addition to our team.”
Outside of her work, Hellinga is also a fan of several different sports like volleyball and ultimate frisbee. She said she’s thus looking forward to being involved with different sports groups here again, like volunteering her time as a coach with 807 Selects Volleyball Club, much like she did when she was in town as a student optometrist, or checking out the local judo club. Hellinga is also a fan of the outdoors and so enjoys being outside in nature exploring and spending time on the lake.