Health and Medicine

Eye clinic work led to perfect match

UNC School of Medicine graduate Dr. Tika Zbornik Thompson will soon begin a residency in ophthalmology at UNC Hospitals

Tika Zbornik Thompson with her husband
UNC School of Medicine graduate Tika Zbornik Thompson (left) on Orcas Island with her husband, Rhese Thompson, a Carolina doctoral student. Zbornik Thompson grew up on the island, off the Washington state coast and only accessibly by ferry, private boat and airplane. (Submitted photo)

Before she began applying to medical schools, Tika Zbornik Thompson knew she needed to add one key element that would help her personally and professionally.

“When I moved to Chapel Hill in 2017, I knew I wanted to go to medical school but realized that my application needed to show some direct patient interaction,” she said. So she got a job at Carrboro Family Vision as a patient technician. She worked there for two years, checking eye pressure and vision and performing diagnostic assessments before patients saw an optometrist.

“I absolutely loved it,” she said.

That job paid off as Zbornik Thompson is set to graduate from the UNC School of Medicine and begin a residency in the UNC Hospitals ophthalmology department.

Before taking the clinic job, she had few opportunities for direct interaction with patients. She grew up on Orcas Island off the Washington state coast in the island’s only town of Eastsound, population 5,000. The only ways to access the island are by ferry, private boat and airplane. Her parents moved to Eastsound when her father was a crew member on a 130-foot commercial schooner.

“It’s a very tight-knit community. You’re with the same kids and families from kindergarten through 12th grade. It was a wonderful way to grow up, and I try to get back there as much as I can, especially to see my family,” she said.

Orcas Island has a medical center that offered only primary care, no specialty care. That’s why, during her pre-med days, she imagined herself becoming a primary care physician.

She graduated from Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, in 2017, earning a biology degree and minoring in chemistry and Spanish. Later that year, she married her high school sweetheart, Rhese Thompson, who had graduated from Linfield one year earlier and entered the biochemistry and biophysics doctoral program at Carolina.

Zbornik Thompson’s patient-centric experience in the vision clinic helped her gain admission to the UNC School of Medicine, where she learned that she not only enjoyed interacting with patients but also that she liked performing surgery. She observed surgeries and helped suture wounds.

She likes ophthalmology because it combines patient interaction in a clinic with the options to manage a disease with medicine or, when needed, through surgery.

“I loved being in the operating room and experiencing how surgery can make definitive changes to someone’s disease,” she said. “I also realized that I wanted to learn more about a subset of medicine, to be fairly specialized, and I wanted to be the endpoint in a patient’s care instead of the starting point. I want to have the answers as much as possible when I see a patient.”

At Carolina, Zbornik Thompson was co-president of the Farmworker Student Health Alliance, which provides free health care and resources to migrant farmworkers, and treated patients through the Student Health Action Coalition. She also took part in the Comprehensive Advanced Medical Program of Spanish, in which students with some Spanish language skills learn medical terminology and cultural aspects to enhance interactions with Spanish-speaking patients. She organized a workshop that offered incoming female medical students advice from UNC faculty women.

With the pandemic coinciding with her time in medical school, she credits the school’s administration with helping her class weather many COVID-related changes. “I could tell throughout all four years that they care about the students and were doing what they could to help us maximize our education,” she said. “It’s been a great experience living somewhere completely new and finding a new community.”