By Ellie Amador
The gift of sight is not to be taken for granted—or left to the unsteady hands of an inexperienced surgeon.
“No one wants to be a surgeon’s first patient,” says ophthalmologist Barrett Haik, director of the Hamilton Eye Institute at the UT Health Science Center. “The slightest nick can cause irreversible damage.”
Yet, professors at the Hamilton Eye Institute encourage surgical experimentation.
Blindness isn’t a risk, however, thanks to a virtual reality surgical simulator. A generous gift provided the simulator, which lets both students and experts practice new techniques, simulate serious complications, or simply hone skills.
“We are one of a handful of schools in the country to offer this level of training,” says Haik. “Our surgeons might practice a procedure a thousand times before they ever touch a patient.”
This hasn’t always been the case.
“Fifty years ago, the complication rate for a new surgeon ran about thirty percent for the first hundred cases—and that was unacceptable,” Haik says.
Today, the complication rate for a UT graduate is less than 1 percent. UT-trained ophthalmologists are the best of the best and now have access to state-of-the-art equipment, world-class facilities, and renowned professors, thanks to inspirational leaders and donors.
And the vision of a few in Memphis has affected the sight of a few hundred thousand around the world.
“It all started with Barbara and Ralph Hamilton and their vision for people in the region to have access to the best eye care in the world, right here in Tennessee,” Haik says.
Fulfilling the Hamiltons’ vision requires continued support and funding. Rob Carter, past chair of the institute’s capital campaign, was willing to provide both.
Carter, executive vice-president and chief information officer at FedEx Corporation, credits the institute’s achievements to Haik’s commitment and drive.
“I was blown away by this man’s desire to make life better for so many people and was motivated to help in every way I could,” Carter says. As FedEx CIO, Carter knows a thing or two about information technology. His support led to building a vitally important IT infrastructure at the institute.
Telehealth, a virtual consultation service, is possible because of this connectivity. Telehealth allows the institute to deliver education to, and gather research from, physicians around the world—live. It was this capability that, during a tour of the facility, intrigued businessman and philanthropist Jim McGehee and led him to donate to the capital campaign.
“It was fascinating to watch surgeons in Memphis assist doctors performing an eye surgery in Australia,” McGehee recalls.
Telehealth was removing barriers to accessing quality healthcare, but giving students enough practice time on human eyes was still a challenge. The best solution Haik could envision was the latest breakthrough in ophthalmic education—a surgical simulator. McGehee was happy to fund it.
“He thought it important, and that was all I needed to know,” McGehee recalls of his motivation to make the gift.
“I’ve never seen as involved philanthropists as I’ve seen in Tennessee,” Haik exclaims. “It’s truly remarkable the pride they have taken in the institute.”
Carter is a University of Florida alumnus and trustee, but he believes in what the UT Health Science Center is doing in Memphis.
“Having a significant impact where you live and work and where your children are growing up is very important,” Carter says. “I’ll always be a supporter.”
McGehee agrees. “I welcome any opportunity to help Dr. Haik and enhance the brilliant work he is doing here in Memphis. McGehee says gifts both large and small help meet community needs.
“I am absolutely a believer in, and advocate for, the raindrop theory,” he says. “Raindrops truly do fill the bucket.”