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Bascom Palmer Eye Institute 50th Anniversary Reunion & Scientific Meeting

1967 Residents at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

1967 Residents at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

Donald D’Amico, M.D., F 82

Fellow, 1982

Donal D'amicoIn 1980, I was a retina-leaning second year resident at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary, and I did a pathology rotation presentation on lattice retinal degeneration for Taylor Smith. He must have enjoyed my talk, because he told me immediately afterwards that if I wanted to apply to Bascom Palmer for a retina fellowship, he would be happy to offer his recommendation. I didn’t fully appreciate at that time that Vic Curtin was his close friend and the student of whom he was most proud, and with Taylor’s help and others, I was successful in getting an interview and then an offer from BPEI. Although I also interviewed in Wisconsin and was honored at the thought of working with Tom Aaberg and his remarkable group, I found myself more attracted to the dynamics of a much larger institution like BPEI. During my interview day, I had seen the remarkable attention and precision of Vic in the OR as he examined and treated a retinal detachment with cryo, and I had also had an unplanned and exhilarating encounter with one of Don Gass’s suitable-for-publication hallway consults, so I enthusiastically accepted the BPEI spot. Due to the staggered finish of MEEI residents at that time, I was scheduled to start in August, not July, 1981.

Donal D'amico with son 1982My wife of three years and I put our very meager family belongings into an old, green, base model, unairconditioned AMC Gremlin—a car that is no longer even seen because they have all mercifully rusted away and were too ugly to be interesting to collectors. Driving down I-95 from Boston with our Labrador mutt and a Jartran trailer in tow in the height of the summer heat was brutal and unforgettable. I remember with particular clarity the need to day stop at a motel with a pool in rural South Carolina, simply because the only alternative was death by heat exhaustion. Arriving on Key Biscayne, I was buying a broom and the usual new apartment stuff at the Winn Dixie when the checkout person asked me how I liked living on the Key. When I asked how she knew that I lived there, she (unforgettably) said “Honey, anyone who’s here in August lives here.” And so began my vitreoretinal fellowship at BPEI in August 1981.

My fellow fellows were John Olson, Calvin Mein, and Lee Anderson, as well as Jim Tiedeman (medical with Don Gass) and Lee McLean (extra year in ultrasound), and we bonded as, I would assert, very few other retina fellow clusters ever have. Most fellows lived on the Key in Mackle houses in fairly spartan style, but Cal and Lee Anderson were exceptional in that they both owned real furniture, with Lee’s apartment in Kendall being furnished in elegant modern oriental. Jim and I would usually drive together from the Key with the remarkable occurrence that Don Gass would sometimes make it a threesome.

The vitreoretinal service at the time was, as it is now, insanely talented, creative, and dedicated to teaching the fellows. I remember George Blankenship doing his (perhaps the world’s) first air bubble injection followed by laser to treat, in minimally-invasive fashion, a recurrent retinal detachment in a vitrectomized eye, and Mark Blumenkranz collecting fluid from an air/fluid exchange to determine 5 FU concentrations, and Ed Norton buying another laser the day the MPS treatment results came out, and Vic Curtin successfully repairing an amazingly complex detachment with precise localization of each and every retinal break, and then (ridiculously) apologizing that he didn’t do it “from the vitreous side”, and Don Gass asking me to do a scleral window after puzzling together the mechanism of uveal effusion, and Don Nicholson letting me, as a fellow MEEI alum, localize a retinal break with the MIRA diathermy until we realized that I had “cooked the quadrant” by keeping the probe constantly activated during localization, and Harry Flynn’s Friday PM clinic with endless trauma, endophthalmitis, and hopelessly complex (and hopeless) referrals as his referrers were departing for the weekend, and John Clarkson showing the fellows a complicated postop and teaching us how to “get used to living with subretinal fluid,” and all the rest. In particular, I would now confess that, after having been asked to take Dr. Norton’s blood pressure and finding it to be elevated during one of his clinics, the Chief asked me to take it every Tuesday at midmorning, regardless of my duties. And he would always chat with me for a bit about his current concerns and also my future. How amazing to have this quiet time with the most visionary, accomplished, and caring luminary in Ophthalmology. I benefitted so enormously from his most sagacious advice ever after, especially when it came to navigating the shoals of MEEI.

Although it is certainly true that BPEI has outstanding services in every area and is great across the board, Bascom Palmer is the best thing that ever happened to retina in particular. Vic once said at an Aspen Retinal Detachment Society Meeting that retinal detachment, macular degeneration, and vitrectomy basically built the Bascom Palmer. I certainly understand the basis of his remark, but in the end, it’s nonsense. He and Ed built the Bascom Palmer. Through their most remarkable partnership of shared vision and actualization, they built the buildings, established an unparalleled reputation for quality care, and most of all, selected the PEOPLE who would become part of the Bascom Palmer team. Vic—certainly the most insightful and memorable interviewer in all of ophthalmology—interviewed everyone, including incoming faculty, residents, fellows, but also hospital clerks, cafeteria staff, secretaries—everyone. Nothing was left to chance in the creation of BPEI. I learned an open secret: take the greatest care with the choice of your people. Now that I am the chair at Weill Cornell, I take the greatest care with the selection of its people, and I am touched and heartened that both Ed and Vic launched their careers from the department that is now entrusted to my care.

It would be very satisfying, but redundant and certainly impossible, to offer an extensive recounting of the extent of BPEI’s positive influence on my career; I am sure this book will be filled with the gratitude of all of us, and I share this gratitude in the deepest measure. Rather, I would express my feelings from another perspective. As a young ophthalmologist, it is a dream to go somewhere, but as I have grown older, I have come to an ever-deepening appreciation that it is also important to be from somewhere. After finishing my fellowship, alone and initially in quite difficult circumstances in the competitive retinal environment of MEEI, the faculty of BPEI brought me into their academic world, adding my name to courses, suggesting me for talks, encouraging their colleagues to work with me and share research projects and patients as well. They took me and made me one of their own. The light they shined on me, far away in Boston and struggling to find my way in the OR, in my career, and even my personal life, enabled my first steps and has illuminated the path ever since. I am so unbelievably grateful to Bascom Palmer and its people for all of this, for providing such a magnificent place to be from—a home that, like all true homes, is always carried in the heart.

Donald J. D’Amico, MD

Professor and Chairman
The Betty Neuwirth Lee and Chilly Professor in Stem Cell Research
Weill Cornell Medical College;
Ophthalmologist-in-Chief
New York-Presbyterian Hospital