Abby and Paige Small with their father, Craig. Credit: Nina Mahaleris

Since they were children, Abby and Paige Small knew they wanted to be doctors. What they didn’t know was that one day they would follow in the footsteps of their parents and become the fourth generation of descendants to work in the family business.

After graduating from optometry school in May, the Small sisters have returned to Caribou to work at Family Eye Care and Mavor Optical, a practice their great-grandfather began in 1921. Since then, the business has been maintained by various members of the Small family. Abby and Paige are now the fourth-generation of optometrists in the family’s history.

The sisters are two and a half years apart in age — Abby, 27, and Paige, 25 — and they’ve spent most of their lives by each other’s side. When it came time to leave for college, the two went their separate ways but remained close, they said.

Abby received a degree in medical biology and sociology from the University of New England. Not too long after, Paige also finished her studies at the University of Maine in Orono, completing a degree in biology on an accelerated track, which enabled her to finish in three years instead of four. Abby, who was already two years ahead of Paige, took a gap year to figure out what specialty she wanted to pursue.

By September 2015, both sisters were enrolled in the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Services in Worcester, about an hour from Boston. The two lived together during their four years at the college and relied on each other for everything from moral support and personal advice to academic guidance.

“They divide you up … in alphabetical order so Paige and I had all of our clinical training together, which was awesome, we sat next to each other in all of our lectures for four years, we went through our specialty clinics together … We’ve really been right next to one another through this whole process and that’s made it even more special,” Abby said.

The first two years of optometry school were intense, with a lot of emphasis on the medical and scientific studies of the eyes. Abby said that after two years, students begin their clinicals where they’re able to work with patients everyday. “It’s really exciting, you see a lot of growth during that time period.”

The two said that they chose the college for its advanced technology and competitive educational programs which allowed them to be at the fore-front of optometry and to then bring that expertise back to Aroostook County. “That’s something that we really feel like we can share with the community and our patients,” Paige said.

“It’s kind of a big part of why we wanted to get into the healthcare field in general. Patient education is a huge part in actually providing for a patient and sometimes patients don’t realize the extent of what’s going on with their body because it isn’t communicated as well as it could be,” Abby said.

They said an eye exam can even reveal systemic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. And in rare cases, an eye exam can show various pigments in the eye that may be linked to colon cancer.

The Family Eye Care and Mavor Optical center is also part of the InfantSEE program with the American Optometric Association, which offers children’s first eye exam free, according to their father, Craig Small.

Family Eye Care is the only practice in Presque Isle that offers the InfantSEE program. Although a few families have taken advantage of the program this year, Craig said he would like to see more in the future. “I think it’s a resource that not enough people use,” Abby said.

Abby and Paige credit to their advanced training to the Massachusetts college and said the patient experiences they had during their clinical rotations helped shape them as doctors. The school has an 84 percent acceptance rate but the admittance process can be intensive. The pair each needed to do an in-person interview at the school, which their parents accompanied them to.

Upon returning home to Caribou later that week, Craig and his wife, Jane, found a letter from the college asking if they would like to make their clinic a registered teaching facility where optometry students could perform their externships, although Paige and Abby were not allowed to do a rotation at their family’s practice.

Nonetheless, the sisters stuck close together even when their externships kept them apart.

“Honestly this was such a special experience because, even though she’s my younger sister, I felt like I was turning to her as just my peer, just like everyone else…there were many times that I looked up to her,” Abby said.

By early May of this year, Paige and Abby rejoined for their graduation from optometry school before heading north to start working at the family clinic. Craig said it’s a “dream come true” to work with his daughters, although both he and his wife said they never planned for it to happen.

While raising their girls, Craig and Jane encouraged them to pursue whatever they wanted to do but they noticed early on that Paige and Abby had a passion for the medical field and a desire to help people.

Ever since they settled on optometry, Abby and Paige had “always known” they wanted to come back and carry on the family tradition of working in the business. “For us, we’ve known that’s really special to both Paige and I and our family … we’ve always had it in our hearts that we were going to come back to this community and to continue on serving just like our great-grandfather did.”

In 2020, Family Eye Care and Mavor Optical will celebrate 100 years of serving the people of Aroostook County. Paige’s and Abby’s great-grandfather, Dr. William Small, opened the first practice in Caribou around 1921, according to Craig.

“We felt that it was really important to come back to the community that essentially helped to raise us … What’s really unique about Aroostook County is that it has that ‘small-town’ feel, and the people that influenced us, we really appreciate so we wanted to come back to this community to serve them,” Abby said.

She said that thinking of the entwinement of the family’s history and the business is what makes her most proud of their achievements.

Abby choked back tears as she spoke of the fulfillment of being a fourth-generation optometrist in the family business. For Abby and Paige, one of the most special parts of it all is meeting some of their longtime patients in The County who have been seen by their relatives.

“To look at a patient and know that … the same exam was done by our great-grandfather, a man who started this all, who we’re related to but have never had the opportunity to meet … it really just brings so much more meaning to what we’re doing,” Abby said.

This story was originally published in The County.