Oliver Kuhn-Wilken, OD

Positive, outgoing and curious, Dr. Kuhn-Wilken enjoys learning and connecting with people one-on-one. Oliver has had a varied career. Prior to becoming an optometric physician, he was a travel writer, typesetter, office manager of an architecture firm, carpenter, and co-owner of a construction company. A lifelong interest in eyes, vision and optics—coupled with a desire to spend more time helping people—led to a decision to completely change course and head to optometry school. These days, when not in the office, Dr. Kuhn-Wilken enjoys exploring nature, running, rowing, reading, and cooking. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Portland, Oregon. They have a son and daughter—Ezra and Eleanor.

Optometric Physician based in our Tualatin, Oregon office

: Tell us about your family, background, and early memories.

: My earliest memories are of snowfall in my hometown, Fort Collins, Colorado. My father taught geography at Colorado State University, but his research led to trips out of the country. When I was four, we moved to the city of Puebla, Mexico. I remember playing outside in the fields, making little forts in the mud, and playing in a water tank that stood in the middle of the courtyard.

Later, our family moved to Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, a tiny country entirely surrounded by South Africa. My dad studied subsistence farming there, and I attended a British prep school. I began to study French and German and learned how to play soccer. I was 8 when we arrived in Lesotho and 11 by the time we left.

I have two younger siblings, a sister and a brother. Our family was close. We ate dinners together, and we went on many road trips. My parents believed in raising kids without television. We did a lot of reading together, played cards, and went on camping trips. We used to listen to opera while eating pizza every Sunday night.

: In what ways did your parents contribute to your life journey?

: My father believed it was every person’s right to follow their intellectual curiosity, wherever it led them. He believed that learning and growth happen throughout life, not just in school. He put up with me going in all sorts of misguided directions year after year and gently supported me the whole time. He just believed in each person’s process.

My mom was a nutritionist. She helped low-income families learn how to cook for themselves on a small budget—and to cook healthfully. She cultivated a sense of emotional connection with other people and the importance of being kind and caring with other human beings. She is a photographer and a visual person, and when she needed cataract surgery, it was fun to have her come to PCLI.

Oliver and his siblings in Egypt, 1978.

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A “ferry”-tale marriage.

Oliver, Elizabeth, Ezra, and Eleanor at the Oregon coast beach in 2014.

: You started out a long way from optometry. What were your earlier interests?

: Growing up in Colorado, my middle school English teacher Ms. Tellez showed me that the study of narrative could be both fun and profound. She did that through books, through movies, through poems. I read voraciously.

I also became intrigued with movie animation, including the work of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. My best friend and I had a Super-8 camera and used it to animate clay or Lego creatures, creating weird movies in which anything could and did happen—all aimed at getting a laugh!

At UC Berkeley, I majored in English, graduating in 1991. That led to several short-lived jobs; I was a travel writer in Europe for a while, and I worked for a typography shop, setting type for poetry and art books. When I first moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1995, I worked for an architectural firm, and that was how I discovered that architecture wasn’t the right choice for me either.

: But it did lead to a fulfilling chapter when you had the opportunity to work with your brother. How did that happen?

: I enjoyed swinging a hammer. It’s fun work. It’s outdoors. I have a mathematical bent, and I really enjoyed the calculations involved with roof rafters. And I loved building staircases. I found that carpentry, surprisingly, is a helping profession. It was gratifying to help families solve issues, so it appealed to that side of me too.

My brother, who’s five years younger than me, was interested in the same thing. He joined me in carpentry, and we went into business together: Wilken & Wilken Construction. We started out doing porches, and then house remodels. We built a large timber-framed house.

When my brother left the business to become a school teacher, I realized that what I had enjoyed most about our business was working with him. I started thinking that I didn’t want to be a carpenter for the rest of my life.

: At that point, you began thinking about the next step in life?

: I had met my wife, Elizabeth, in 1999, and it was love at first sight. We got married in 2003. So by the time I was rethinking carpentry, we were also thinking about our future together.

Looking forward, I knew three things: I wanted to help people, I didn’t enjoy lots of meetings, and I didn’t want to spend all my time at a computer.

I made a big list of jobs that met those criteria, and then I started taking people out to lunch to interview them about their work. As soon as I began talking to optometrists, I noticed that every one of them loved what they did. Their job requirements fit well with what I’m good at. Optometrists have to be good at math and science, but also at communicating clearly.

My decision to go into optometry completely shocked everyone. I’d never had an eye exam, never been inside an optometry clinic. I was the least optometrically-oriented person!

: How did your wife feel about it?

: She supported me without any hesitation, even though she understood the sacrifices it would require. I had to do a year and a half of science prerequisites simply to apply, then four years of optometry and a year of residency—it was a major undertaking. She was unwavering in her support.

: Did you ever have second thoughts?

: I never did. I was convinced that I was going to have a great time as an optometrist. I don’t have very many moments of clarity like that in my life, but that was one.

Once I got to Pacific, I was taught by an incredible group of professors, some of the best teachers of my life. Optometry school was one of the hardest and best things I’ve ever done. After graduation, I did my residency under the great Dr. Jeffery Hiett at the American Lake Veterans’ Administration Hospital. I will always be grateful for what he taught me.

: How did Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute enter the picture?

: I was in the last of four internships at Pacific University College of Optometry. I chose a rotation at PCLI for the simple reason that it was close to home, and Elizabeth and I were expecting our second baby during those months! What a fortuitous choice that was. I quickly realized that PCLI was an incredible company. The doctors and staff had genuine care for the vision and wellbeing of each patient. They worked hard to ensure that each patient not only had a safe surgery, but also felt respected and cared for.

Jack Kerouac once wrote, “Practice kindness all day to everybody, and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”  The doctors and staff were truly living this. I immediately started trying to get a job at PCLI. In 2013, they finally let me in! I feel so honored to work at this company, and I continue to be inspired by Dr. Ford’s vision.

: What would people notice if they could look inside your office right now?

: I have a big corkboard, and tacked on it are dozens of studies and interesting things to track down. My goal is to constantly grow in my job, and I enjoy trying to keep up with this amazing field.

Then there are the plants up against the window. I’ve become caretaker of the clinic’s indoor plants. They’re thriving, but not because I have a green thumb! They just like the plant food mix I give them.

I also have a lot of photos of my family. My beautiful wife Elizabeth is a couple and family therapist. My son Ezra, who’s 12, loves everything online and also hanging out with friends. He likes biking and building things. My daughter Eleanor is 9—almost 10! She enjoys reading, art, being with her friends and cooking. Actually, both kids are into cooking—mostly cookies!

: What would you say is most fulfilling about your work?

: I love helping people improve their lives in such a fundamental way, both here at PCLI and elsewhere. In 2019 I went on a humanitarian eyecare trip to Guatemala with a number of PCLI employees. We worked up to 16 hours a day, completing more than 300 cataract surgeries in a week. Medical care is scarce to nonexistent in parts of Guatemala, and a person can go blind from cataracts, making them helpless and dependent. Often one blind person then requires another family member to take care of them. A 10-minute cataract surgery can help an entire family.

Here in the office, I have the same opportunity to identify needs and provide solutions. People come in with a wide range of vision problems. I talk with them about goals, expectations, and the potential risks and rewards of surgery. Vision is so precious to people. I’ve never had a day when I didn’t look forward to coming to work.

We’re all searching for joy. Sometimes we think lasting joy will come from the next thing we buy or experience, but that’s not really the case. There’s a quotation I like from playwright George Bernard Shaw. He wrote, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”

In my work, I feel I’m being used for a purpose bigger than me. That’s a great feeling

 

 

PROFESSIONAL PROFILE

OPTOMETRIC SCHOOL

2011 – Pacific University College of Optometry, Forest Grove, OR

RESIDENCY

2012 – American Lake VA Medical Center, Tacoma, WA

MEDICAL PRACTICE

2012 to 2013 – Private practice, Portland, OR

2013 to present – Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute

High jinx with Eleanor and Ezra, 2018.

Seeing patients on an eye surgery mission in Guatemala.

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We specialize in cataract surgery and LASIK laser vision correction. When you entrust us with the care of your vision, our team of experts concentrates their skills on giving you the best possible outcome. Having performed over 700,000 micro eye surgeries, we have earned a reputation for world class care.

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To reach our office nearest you, call 800-224-7254. In Alaska call 800-557-7254.

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Oliver Kuhn-Wilken, OD

Optometric Physician based in our Tualatin, Oregon office

Positive, outgoing and curious, Dr. Kuhn-Wilken enjoys learning and connecting with people one-on-one. Oliver has had a varied career. Prior to becoming an optometric physician, he was a travel writer, typesetter, office manager of an architecture firm, carpenter, and co-owner of a construction company. A lifelong interest in eyes, vision and optics—coupled with a desire to spend more time helping people—led to a decision to completely change course and head to optometry school. These days, when not in the office, Dr. Kuhn-Wilken enjoys exploring nature, running, rowing, reading, and cooking. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Portland, Oregon. They have a son and daughter—Ezra and Eleanor.

: Tell us about your family, background, and early memories.

: My earliest memories are of snowfall in my hometown, Fort Collins, Colorado. My father taught geography at Colorado State University, but his research led to trips out of the country. When I was four, we moved to the city of Puebla, Mexico. I remember playing outside in the fields, making little forts in the mud, and playing in a water tank that stood in the middle of the courtyard.

Later, our family moved to Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, a tiny country entirely surrounded by South Africa. My dad studied subsistence farming there, and I attended a British prep school. I began to study French and German and learned how to play soccer. I was 8 when we arrived in Lesotho and 11 by the time we left.

I have two younger siblings, a sister and a brother. Our family was close. We ate dinners together, and we went on many road trips. My parents believed in raising kids without television. We did a lot of reading together, played cards, and went on camping trips. We used to listen to opera while eating pizza every Sunday night.

Oliver and his siblings in Egypt, 1978.

: In what ways did your parents contribute to your life journey?

: My father believed it was every person’s right to follow their intellectual curiosity, wherever it led them. He believed that learning and growth happen throughout life, not just in school. He put up with me going in all sorts of misguided directions year after year and gently supported me the whole time. He just believed in each person’s process.

My mom was a nutritionist. She helped low-income families learn how to cook for themselves on a small budget—and to cook healthfully. She cultivated a sense of emotional connection with other people and the importance of being kind and caring with other human beings. She is a photographer and a visual person, and when she needed cataract surgery, it was fun to have her come to PCLI.

: You started out a long way from optometry. What were your earlier interests?

: Growing up in Colorado, my middle school English teacher Ms. Tellez showed me that the study of narrative could be both fun and profound. She did that through books, through movies, through poems. I read voraciously.

I also became intrigued with movie animation, including the work of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. My best friend and I had a Super-8 camera and used it to animate clay or Lego creatures, creating weird movies in which anything could and did happen—all aimed at getting a laugh!

At UC Berkeley, I majored in English, graduating in 1991. That led to several short-lived jobs; I was a travel writer in Europe for a while, and I worked for a typography shop, setting type for poetry and art books. When I first moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1995, I worked for an architectural firm, and that was how I discovered that architecture wasn’t the right choice for me either.

: But it did lead to a fulfilling chapter when you had the opportunity to work with your brother. How did that happen?

: I enjoyed swinging a hammer. It’s fun work. It’s outdoors. I have a mathematical bent, and I really enjoyed the calculations involved with roof rafters. And I loved building staircases. I found that carpentry, surprisingly, is a helping profession. It was gratifying to help families solve issues, so it appealed to that side of me too.

My brother, who’s five years younger than me, was interested in the same thing. He joined me in carpentry, and we went into business together: Wilken & Wilken Construction. We started out doing porches, and then house remodels. We built a large timber-framed house.

When my brother left the business to become a school teacher, I realized that what I had enjoyed most about our business was working with him. I started thinking that I didn’t want to be a carpenter for the rest of my life.

: At that point, you began thinking about the next step in life?

: I had met my wife, Elizabeth, in 1999, and it was love at first sight. We got married in 2003. So by the time I was rethinking carpentry, we were also thinking about our future together.

Looking forward, I knew three things: I wanted to help people, I didn’t enjoy lots of meetings, and I didn’t want to spend all my time at a computer.

I made a big list of jobs that met those criteria, and then I started taking people out to lunch to interview them about their work. As soon as I began talking to optometrists, I noticed that every one of them loved what they did. Their job requirements fit well with what I’m good at. Optometrists have to be good at math and science, but also at communicating clearly.

My decision to go into optometry completely shocked everyone. I’d never had an eye exam, never been inside an optometry clinic. I was the least optometrically-oriented person!

Oliver, Elizabeth, Ezra, and Eleanor at the Oregon coast beach in 2014.

: How did your wife feel about it?

: She supported me without any hesitation, even though she understood the sacrifices it would require. I had to do a year and a half of science prerequisites simply to apply, then four years of optometry and a year of residency—it was a major undertaking. She was unwavering in her support.

: Did you ever have second thoughts?

: I never did. I was convinced that I was going to have a great time as an optometrist. I don’t have very many moments of clarity like that in my life, but that was one.

Once I got to Pacific, I was taught by an incredible group of professors, some of the best teachers of my life. Optometry school was one of the hardest and best things I’ve ever done. After graduation, I did my residency under the great Dr. Jeffery Hiett at the American Lake Veterans’ Administration Hospital. I will always be grateful for what he taught me.

: How did Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute enter the picture?

: I was in the last of four internships at Pacific University College of Optometry. I chose a rotation at PCLI for the simple reason that it was close to home, and Elizabeth and I were expecting our second baby during those months! What a fortuitous choice that was. I quickly realized that PCLI was an incredible company. The doctors and staff had genuine care for the vision and wellbeing of each patient. They worked hard to ensure that each patient not only had a safe surgery, but also felt respected and cared for.

Jack Kerouac once wrote, “Practice kindness all day to everybody, and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”  The doctors and staff were truly living this. I immediately started trying to get a job at PCLI. In 2013, they finally let me in! I feel so honored to work at this company, and I continue to be inspired by Dr. Ford’s vision.

: What would people notice if they could look inside your office right now?

: I have a big corkboard, and tacked on it are dozens of studies and interesting things to track down. My goal is to constantly grow in my job, and I enjoy trying to keep up with this amazing field.

Then there are the plants up against the window. I’ve become caretaker of the clinic’s indoor plants. They’re thriving, but not because I have a green thumb! They just like the plant food mix I give them.

I also have a lot of photos of my family. My beautiful wife Elizabeth is a couple and family therapist. My son Ezra, who’s 12, loves everything online and also hanging out with friends. He likes biking and building things. My daughter Eleanor is 9—almost 10! She enjoys reading, art, being with her friends and cooking. Actually, both kids are into cooking—mostly cookies!

 

A “ferry”-tale marriage.

: What would you say is most fulfilling about your work?

: I love helping people improve their lives in such a fundamental way, both here at PCLI and elsewhere. In 2019 I went on a humanitarian eyecare trip to Guatemala with a number of PCLI employees. We worked up to 16 hours a day, completing more than 300 cataract surgeries in a week. Medical care is scarce to nonexistent in parts of Guatemala, and a person can go blind from cataracts, making them helpless and dependent. Often one blind person then requires another family member to take care of them. A 10-minute cataract surgery can help an entire family.

Here in the office, I have the same opportunity to identify needs and provide solutions. People come in with a wide range of vision problems. I talk with them about goals, expectations, and the potential risks and rewards of surgery. Vision is so precious to people. I’ve never had a day when I didn’t look forward to coming to work.

We’re all searching for joy. Sometimes we think lasting joy will come from the next thing we buy or experience, but that’s not really the case. There’s a quotation I like from playwright George Bernard Shaw. He wrote, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”

In my work, I feel I’m being used for a purpose bigger than me. That’s a great feeling

 

PROFESSIONAL PROFILEOPTOMETRIC SCHOOL2011 – Pacific University College of Optometry, Forest Grove, ORRESIDENCY2012 – American Lake VA Medical Center, Tacoma, WAMEDICAL PRACTICE2012 to 2013 – Private practice, Portland, OR2013 to present – Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute

Seeing patients on an eye surgery mission in Guatemala.