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The Blessings of a Wandering Eye

Kerry Graff, MD shares about how a diagnosis of lazy eye at age five changed the trajectory of her life, in several unexpected ways.

December 1, 2023

One of my earliest memories is of wanting to be a doctor.

I was five years old.

Specifically, I wanted to be an eye doctor, like Dr. Wigton, who I had to see regularly as he monitored my progress from the exercises he prescribed to strengthen my lazy eye in an effort to avoid surgery.  Most of the time, I could see just fine, but intermittently, my right eye would wander off to the right and I’d see a weird double world.  Everything would become a bit fuzzy and it appeared as if the world was slowly expanding outwardly to the sides.

As any five-year-old would, I found my visual “adventures” to be a bit magical and quite beautiful, but apparently, everyone else found them to be problematic.

In any case, Dr. Wigton was a kindly man who was already quite up there in years, although when you are five, just about everyone over 30 seems “up there in years”.  He always scheduled me as his last patient of the day, presumably to make sure that my mom, who always accompanied me, did not have to take time off from work.   I am pretty sure, however, he scheduled me at the end of his day because he absolutely loved showing me all of his cool equipment as much as I loved learning about how everything worked, and he could take an extra 20-30 minutes at each visit with me without getting behind for the day.

 

 

I looked forward to my eye doctor appointments like other kids looked forward to going to Disneyworld.  I was diligent and did my eye patching and button-on-a-string exercises religiously, in order to get my eyes to “track” together as I looked at the world.

As my right eye wandered outward less and less, I sadly also saw Dr. Wigton less and less, until I was down to a once-a-year check-in, just like everybody else, although he did continue to take extra time to show me his wonderous gadgets.

The good news is that today, you will never notice my right eye wandering off unless I am extremely tired and I am also a doctor, although not quite in the way I had aspired to be back in Dr. Wigton’s office.

 

Wanting to maximize my chances of getting into medical school and then into an ophthalmology residency program, I worked in a vision research lab for three years while getting my undergraduate degree in biology at Cornell University.

The lab studied eye development in children through photo-refraction, which is basically capturing a picture of light bouncing off the eyes to see how well they are tracking and focusing.

While working at the lab, I picked up a previously undetected congenital cataract in a baby.  If it had not been detected and treated early, it would have caused that child to have permanent vision loss.

I had my first real taste of what I thought it would be like to be a doctor that day, and it tasted sweet.

I did my senior research thesis on photo-refraction, which resulted in me graduating summa cum laude from Cornell and also likely was the reason I was awarded a large scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.  That unexpected financial windfall was sorely needed, as I would need to borrow every penny for tuition and living expenses for my four years of medical school.

 

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At the end of my third year of medical school, I had a bit of an existential crisis when I did my first and only rotation in ophthalmology.

I realized that the eye doctor world I had experienced as a five-year-old was absolutely nothing like the surgical assembly lines I would be working on.

I quickly recognized I would be bored out of my ever-loving mind if I became an ophthalmologist and needed to pursue something broader for the sake of my sanity.

I decided family medicine was my future.  In addition to the breadth of the field, I cherished the long-standing relationships with the patients and often with their multigenerational families.

I loved the idea of being with my patients through sickness and in health, until death do us part.

It felt like a marriage made in medical heaven.

 

I loved the idea of being with my patients through sickness and in health, until death do us part. It felt like a marriage made in medical heaven. Click To Tweet

 

I graduated from my family medicine residency program 27 years ago and, well, a lot has happened since then.

Over those years, I spent approximately 75,000 hours providing medical care to patients, from delivering babies to providing hospice care services at the end of life.

I was employed by a hospital system, then left to go into independent practice.

I had health issues personally that brought me to discovering the power that improving lifestyle habits has to prevent, treat and reverse many chronic diseases.

I applied those principles of lifestyle medicine to my practice of medicine and saw my patients improve way beyond anything the pills and procedures of mainstream medicine had to offer.

 

At the end of my third year of medical school, I had a bit of an existential crisis when I did my first and only rotation in ophthalmology. 

 

I rejoined a large hospital system to help incorporate lifestyle medicine into the way traditional medicine was practiced and enjoyed a few wonderous years helping to birth this new medical paradigm where addressing the underlying cause of disease is just as important as the pills and procedures typically employed as treatment.

Then, just a few months ago, I resigned from that hospital system when these efforts to incorporate lifestyle medicine were no longer supported by a new administration.

My choices were to go back to the old way of doing things or leave, and leaving meant saying goodbye to patients I had cared for for decades.

When I resigned, I had no plans for what might be next for me; I just knew I couldn’t stay.

Once you know how well lifestyle medicine works, it becomes morally impossible not to put it to practice.

 

So now here I am, at age 55, having spent 50 years of my life either working toward being a physician or actually working as a physician.  Since my memories only go back to age five, I do not actually remember a time when I didn’t see myself through a physician lens.

While I am still figuring out more fully what is next in terms of my work life, I am also finally taking time to ask “Who Am I?”

Who am I when my identity as a physician is stripped away?

In the insanity of the hours needed to train and then to work as a physician, there is rarely time for a nap, let alone any self-reflection!

And so, for the past few months while I have been vastly underemployed, I have been meditating, resting, reading, writing, hiking, traveling and dancing.

So much dancing.  Ridiculous amounts of dancing.

I am just starting to see the person who had been living, unnoticed, beneath my white coat.  She is actually kinda fun.

And funny.

And joyous.

I actually like her.  Who knew?!

By letting go of the need to get everything immediately back on track, I allowed myself to take a wayward glance, letting my view become a bit fuzzy as it expands.

In doing so, I am now seeing a way of living, a way of being, that is more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.

Kerry Graff, MD

Kerry Graff, MD

Using the power of lifestyle medicine to prevent and reverse chronic disease.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. For more information, or to submit your own opinion, please see our submission guidelines or email opmed@doximity.com. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Find out what we’re looking for here and submit your writing, or send us a pitch.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Submit your own article now here.

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