The ACVO Diplomate Spotlight honors Active or Emeritus Diplomates in the profession who are leaders in their field, are in good standing with the ACVO and have an interesting story to share. Please submit your nomination for this feature to the ACVO office for consideration.
The Accidental Ophthalmologist
A St. Louis native; I was fascinated by animals and the natural world from an early age. Unlike my athletic brothers, I much preferred reading in the library to playing on the sports field; in retrospect I was the incarnation of a term that had not yet been invented…nerd. With very limited direct exposure to our profession I chose veterinary medicine for my career aspiration and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a DVM in1975. My lifelong interest in wildlife, exotic animals, and wild places motivated me to pursue zoo and exotic animal medicine, but I realized I needed practical veterinary experience in order to succeed.
My veterinary college mentors steered me toward internships and I served a one-year rotating internship in small animal medicine and surgery at the University of Georgia, the birthplace of the problem-oriented veterinary medical record. This proved to be the turning point and keystone of my young career. The UGA faculty was small in number, energetic, progressive, and over worked. Dr. Gretchen Schmidt doubled as both an ophthalmologist and an internist. I had no prior exposure to didactic or clinical ophthalmology as a veterinary student. When I rotated regularly on her service she mistook my honest questions for interest…and suddenly I was managing half of her ophthalmology patients!
In spring 1976 there were no exotic animal or zoo residency positions available, so I planned to return to St. Louis to small animal practice when my Georgia experience was finished and apply the next year. Fate…disguised as Gretchen Schmidt… intervened. She was recruited to Michigan State University and moved on short notice in early summer 1976. The UGA faculty panicked, believing one or more of them would be saddled with her considerable (feared and dreaded) ophthalmology caseload. One Friday afternoon the department chair and hospital director invited me to a meeting, locking the door, and said, “Sit down, son.” They made a desperate offer, inviting me to stay at UGA as an ophthalmology instructor while they searched urgently for Gretchen’s replacement. I enjoyed ophthalmology and was thankful for my internship experience, so I agreed. The University of Missouri had granted my DVM but UGA had made me a veterinarian. The search ended one year later when Charlie Martin was hired from the Western Veterinary College at Saskatoon. During that year I was immersed in veterinary ophthalmology. I was sent to the University of Illinois to learn extracapsular cataract surgery from Bill Magrane and Lloyd Helper. There were the clinical patients and student rotations to be managed, the basic didactic ophthalmology course to be organized and taught...and someone noticed there were these horses with eye problems out back…It was a very busy and productive year in Athens. The learning curve was steep but confronting it quickly improved my clinical skills and confidence.
When residency application time rolled around in 1977 I applied for the available zoo/exotic and ophthalmology residencies (two of each), hedging my bets. UGA did not offer either one. I still favored exotic animal medicine but my pre-DVM experience with it suggested that its future as a specialty was uncertain. My two years’ experience with ophthalmology had convinced me it was moving forward quickly; I could also practice medical and surgical ophthalmology on many species. On residency notification day in March, I received residency offers from the St. Louis Zoo, where I had been a student extern, and from Cornell’s Comparative Ophthalmology Program…with 24 hours to decide. After some deliberation I chose to pursue ophthalmology based on my positive experience at UGA. As it has turned out, zoo/exotic animal medicine has developed quite well without me!
My Cornell residency mentors, Ron Riis and Bill Rebhun, gave me the guidance and encouragement to expand my skill set and experience but also the independence to make and learn from my mistakes. From 1979-1982, I was an Instructor of Ophthalmology at Cornell until being recruited by Dean Kirk Gelatt to the University of Florida faculty. That became the next defining experience in my career-working with Kirk, Dan Wolf, and their team, getting involved with clinical research and, for me for the first time, training ophthalmology residents (Dennis Brooks and Joan Dziezyc). Recruited back to Cornell in 1983, I have since enjoyed a very satisfying career doing what I love to do in a supportive and progressive academic environment with collegial faculty colleagues in many specialties.
An ACVO diplomate since 1980, I have been honored to serve as committee member (Examination Committee, twice; Genetics, Ethics, and PPDA), Examination Committee Chair, and Veterinary Ophthalmology journal editorial board member (since its inception). I’ve been privileged to serve in the offices of Regent through Immediate Past President. All of these experiences have contributed positively to my growth as a person and a professional. I’m grateful to the ACVO for giving me these opportunities, through which I have also developed many lifelong friendships.
These last decades have not been all work. I continue to satisfy several guilty pleasures I will disclose (cocker spaniels, European Burmese cats, all things antique oak, African travel)…and some others…
After 38 years as a veterinarian I still greatly enjoy and appreciate our patients, clients, students, and, especially, our residents. I remain deeply grateful to our clients for allowing me to be a guardian of their animal companions’ vision; to the veterinary students at UGA, UF, and Cornell for challenging me to demystify clinical ophthalmology for them (with variable success); and to all of the residents I have known for being my teachers, friends, and my legacy to veterinary ophthalmology.
I forgave Gretchen Schmidt long ago for derailing the best-laid plans for my specialty career. It continues to be a great ride!