September 2013

NEWS & OPINION

Chief medical editor's corner of the world

Saving Sight: A great book for the public to gain insight into what we do


by David F. Chang, MD

Imagine how hard it would be to write a medical history book that would equally captivate lay readers and ophthalmologists. That is exactly what practicing retina specialist Andrew Lam, MD, has accomplished with "Saving Sight: An eye surgeon's look at life behind the mask and the heroes who changed the way we see," which was just published this summer. Andrew was a Yale history major before completing his residency and vitreoretinal fellowship at Wills, and he combined these two academic interests to write a collection of short biographies of key ophthalmology pioneers. The stories of Kelman, Ridley, Patz, Schepens, Folkman, Braille, and others are interwoven with anecdotal descriptions of his experiences as a retina subspecialist and as a former ophthalmology resident. As a result the reader can understand not only the formidable obstacles that the innovators had to overcome, but the practical life-changing impact of their work as well. Judging from the positive reader reviews on Amazon, where the book has been a best seller in medicine and scientific biography, Andrew has succeeded in conveying these points to lay readers. In addition, his extensive historical research uncovered many interesting insights that most ophthalmologists may not be aware of. The chapter on how Arnall Patz solved the mystery of ROP is particularly compelling because it ironically portrays the dilemma of malpractice liability against the backdrop of major scientific advances. This should be required reading for every legislator who doesn't understand the need for medical tort reform. Saving Sight joins Second Suns (which I recommended two months ago) as a terrific read for ophthalmologists, as well as their patients, staff members, families, and friends. This month, I interviewed Andrew about the book and why he wrote it. You can learn more at www.AndrewLamMD .com

David F. Chang, MD, chief medical editor

Andrew Lam, MD

Source: Andrew Lam, MD

Dr. Chang: Please describe your new book. What gave you the idea to write a book about ophthalmic innovators for the public?

Dr. Lam: Saving Sight is about the incredible stories of ophthalmology's heroes, including Harold Ridley, Charles Kelman, Charles Schepens, Arnall Patz, Judah Folkman, and the innovators who developed refractive surgery. Their amazing biographies are replete with examples of courage, defeat, serendipity, and perseverance. I thought everyone, including the general public, should have the opportunity to learn more about them.

When my agent and I considered how popular a book about ophthalmic history might be, we concluded that blending the history with my memoir of surgical training would be a good way to draw in more general readers. As a result, the book brings its audience into the OR, to share the constant risks, high expectations, and occasional triumphs that all ophthalmologists find there. I also saw this as a nice chance to show the public what eye surgeons actually do.

Dr. Chang: How did you perform your research on the lives of these pioneers, and what about their stories will most interest lay readers?

Dr. Lam: I was familiar with conducting historical research because I was a history major in college, but the scientific literature also proved essential, particularly on topics like the evolution of refractive surgery, where no comprehensive history had yet been written. I was also fortunate to connect with family members, including Ann Kelman, Ellen Patz, Paula Folkman, and Nicholas Ridley (Harold Ridley's son). They provided helpful anecdotes and insight. For example, upon discussing how opponents of IOLs derailed Harold Ridley's career, Nicholas Ridley told me that his father's ensuing depression "tore our family apart." The poignancy of a recollection like this can't be found in any book. And we cannot forget that real people suffered to invent the tools we take for granted today.

This is also why the lay reader will be drawn to these dramatic underdog stories. You don't have to know anything about ophthalmology to appreciate the overwhelming obstacles these men faced and overcame. Ridley and Folkman were ridiculed for decades. Kelman was disparaged. Schepens almost failed to escape the Nazis. Louis Braille, who is also profiled in the book, despaired that his dot system would ever be used by anyone but himself, and he died completely unknown. These stories are inspirational, and they stand on their own.

Dr. Chang: I assume that this wasn't part of your retina training. From where does your interest in history originate, and what is your background as a writer?

Dr. Lam: I've had a passion for history since childhood, but in college, I realized that being a historian can be a solitary profession, and I preferred interacting with people, so I went to medical school. I still wanted to write books, but instead of writing historical studies of esoteric subjects, my goal has been to make history more accessible, and more interesting, to the general public.

My first book was a historical novel set in China during World War II, titled Two Sons of China. This novel will be published by Bondfire Books in 2014. I developed the plot during my middle-of-the-night shifts in the Wills Emergency Department. With a new baby at home, this was the only time I could find to think in peace. Now I have four kids, but my wife would say that I remain remarkably good at tuning them out when I'm brainstorming on some book idea.

Dr. Chang: Although these pioneers and their accomplishments are well known to ophthalmologists, what are some of the most interesting things that you learned through your research that most of us wouldn't know?

Dr. Lam: Many ophthalmologists know the rough outlines of what these men achieved, but aren't familiar with their full stories. They may know about Ridley's inspiration for the IOL after seeing inert plexiglass in a fighter pilot's eyes, but not that the rejection of his peers pushed him into depression and postponed the acceptance of IOLs until long after he had ended his somber career. They may know that Kelman's invention of phaco was inspired by his dentist's tool, but not about his preceding years of repeated failures and ever-present desperation to earn the approval of his peers. They may want to learn more about the stuttering, multi-national effort to develop refractive surgeryfrom Lans' experiments on rabbits, to Sato's initial success and ultimate failure with posterior corneal incisions, to Barraquer's crazy idea to shape frozen corneal buttons with a watchmaker's lathe, to Fyodorov's "conveyor belt" RK clinic, to Srinivasan's first use of the excimer laser on a turkey leg. The heroes in this book never gave up, despite repeated defeats. They endured. It is clear to me that the development of today's treatments was not inevitable. We are practicing in a golden age of ophthalmology, and we owe much of our capability to these dedicated individuals.

Dr. Chang: What is your next book going to be about?

Dr. Lam: I'm currently working on a historical novel called Repentance, based on the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the segregated Japanese-American unit that fought valiantly in Europe during WWII while many of their families were incarcerated in internment camps at home. It may surprise many that this Nisei regiment became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. My goal with a book like this is to entertain, but also to educate and shine a light on stories that deserve to be more well known than they currently are.

Contact information

Lam: email@AndrewLamMD.com

Saving Sight: A great book for the public to gain insight into what we do Saving Sight: A great book for the public to gain insight into what we do
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