Sophia Taylor, 24, of Long Beach, left, receives an eye examination from… (Christina House / For The…)
Sophia Taylor fidgeted with the drawstrings of her hooded sweat shirt as she sat inside the darkened examination room. It had been more than five years since her last vision exam, and her sight had gotten worse.
When the doctor entered, he asked the 24-year-old a series of questions: Why has it been so long? Had she ever worn glasses? Does she still wear them? Taylor explained that she lost her last pair of glasses, which were never replaced. That was in the seventh grade.
FOR THE RECORD:
Compton optometrist: An article in Section A on Jan. 19 about Dr. Jay Messinger, a longtime Compton optometrist, said he has been the sole optometrist in the city for 30 years. He has been practicing for 30 years and is currently the only one, but there was at least one other optometrist during Messinger's earlier years in practice. —
"My mom said I didn't need them," the Long Beach woman said. "They cost too much."
Dr. Jay Messinger sees patients like Taylor every day. For more than 30 years, he has worked as the sole optometrist in Compton, caring for the eyesight of mainly needy patients who don't have the means to seek regular eye care.
Through the decades, he has earned the respect of residents who have long depended on his services.
During Taylor's exam, she struggled to read the illuminated black letters on the wall. Slide after slide the battle continued as he peered into her pupils. She left with a prescription for much-needed eyeglasses.
"This is a very common story," Messinger said. "It's sometimes difficult to find what people's priorities are. But I can't be critical of it. This isn't an affluent community. They tend to react rather than take action. A parent will get a notice that their child is having trouble seeing. But they will wait four or six months before coming in."
On a recent afternoon, Messinger's waiting room was crowded with patients. A line of people waiting to check in stretched toward the door. Every chair in the waiting room was full, and some patients stood in the corner or waited outside.
And this was the scene after declines in his patient load, the result of cuts in Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid healthcare program, for optometry and optical services.
Messinger expects that his patients will be adversely affected when additional Medi-Caloptions for vision care are cut, leaving those 20 and younger without coverage. He's even more concerned about the mainly Latino and African American population he serves, because those groups are more prone to diabetes and hypertension, both of which can lead to glaucoma.
"The practice has taken a huge hit," Messinger said. "You've got a population without vision care . . . If you're working, then you're coming to get checked. But we have a community that's in a recession. . . . We have a significant amount of people without jobs."
But just as he persevered after his office was damaged in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Messinger is confident he can overcome the recession, although he had to lay off three staff members. He's also significantly reduced his fees to help his patients without insurance.
William German, a longtime patient and friend, said Messinger could have left Compton after the riots.
"He stayed through all of it, and stuck through it, through thick and thin," German said. "He could be called a pioneer."
Messinger comes from a four-generations-long tradition of family optometrists. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all optometrists, as is his uncle, Daniel Messinger, who has been in practice for more than 60 years.
"Each generation, everyone just navigated in the optical industry. You can't get rich off of it, but you can make a living," Daniel Messinger, 81, said from his Philadelphia home. "You have to really love it, to tell you the truth. I happen to love it."
Mary Williams has been a patient of Jay Messinger's since the 1970s. The retired Compton Unified School District teacher said his practice is important to the city.
"He has gained the respect of the community because he is so honest and he provides the services that are so needed. He services everyone -- those insured and uninsured -- with a smile," Williams said. "He's a special kind of guy. He talks with you about whatever eye condition you have. I've not gone to anyplace else. It would be really tough if he wasn't here."
Messinger said he's he realizes that without him, many residents would go without eye care.
"I've always thought, truthfully, this is where I'm meant to be," he said. "I'm not trying to sound hokey. This is where I feel most comfortable."