Alumni Spotlight: Ophthalmologist Valerie Garden, MD '89

Alumna Dr. Valerie Garden discusses her journey from AUC student to ophthalmologist and oculoplastic surgeon.

Valerie Garden, MD '89 examines a patient
During residency, Valerie Garden was one of just two women in her class of 25. Yet she was never fazed by the gender gap in her chosen profession. In fact, for a long time, she had no idea it existed. 

Why? Her mother, a pharmacist, specifically sought out female physicians and dentists to serve as role models for her daughters as they were growing up. “Even though men were much more prevalent in medicine at the time, the only people we saw for our checkups were women,” Dr. Garden says. “It certainly never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it.”  

That outlook has served her well throughout her medical career. During her clinical rotations, one faculty member tried to dissuade her from pursuing surgery, as he didn’t believe women could be successful in the field. But after seeing Dr. Garden skillfully navigate several surgery rotations—and honor in all of them—he changed his tune, telling her, “You were born to be a cutter.” 

“It just never bothered me somehow,” Dr. Garden says, looking back on the experience. “You can’t let someone else’s negativity become your negativity. I was there to learn, and I had some wonderful professors and mentors who supported me on my path.”

After medical school, Dr. Garden completed her surgical internship and most of her glaucoma clinical research fellowship at the University of California - San Diego. She then completed her ophthalmology residency and oculoplastic reconstructive surgery fellowship at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Today, she feels fortunate to be a mentor herself, as well as give back to the community where she practices. Dr. Garden volunteers through Operation Access, an organization that enables Bay Area health care providers to donate vital surgical and specialty care to underprivileged patients. From her practice in Santa Rosa, CA, Dr. Garden performs approximately eight oculoplastic and/or cataract cases per year for patients identified through the organization.

“All of us have to remember that wherever we are in our education, we’re mentors to someone—even though we may not realize it,” Dr. Garden says. “I give so much credit to my mother and my general practitioner, who gave me the idea of becoming a physician, and I was blessed to have exceptional mentors during my training. It’s very rewarding to pass on the legacy of the people who have supported me.”