Ophthalmologist Never Loses Sight of His Purpose

When ophthalmologist Paul Dougherty, MD, isn't developing new vision correction technologies, he travels abroad to gift vision to people who haven't seen in years and trains local ophthalmologists to continue the work.

Every cloud has a silver lining. That’s the optimist’s view, and Paul Dougherty, MD, a Los Angeles-based ophthalmologist, is an optimist. But that perspective was shaken several years ago when Dougherty’s 5-year-old son Andrew died suddenly of the flu.

“It was obviously a pretty powerful experience for me,” says Dougherty, whose family was torn apart over the grieving process. “But it was also very powerful in terms of the clarity of what my life’s purpose is. I realized I was put on this earth to help gift vision to people who can’t afford [the surgery].”

That purpose, in fact, has become the driving force in Dougherty’s life.

A surgeon and a patient

Vision correction surgery was in its infancy when Dougherty was in medical school. As a former wearer of glasses and contact lenses, he was drawn to the high technology, but also to the high rate of patient satisfaction and positive outcomes that were associated with vision correction surgery.

“A lot of things in medicine are very sad, and I’m a very positive person,” Dougherty says. “And oncology, neurosurgery, were things where there was a lot of sadness involved. I liked the positivity of [vision correction surgery].”

Dougherty liked the field so much that he has been actively involved in developing new vision correction technologies.

“To see something move from concept, through the clinical development process to utilization, and then see patients, friends and family actually benefit from the technology, that’s extremely satisfying, and extremely validating,” he says.

Dougherty isn’t just an ophthalmic researcher and refractive surgeon — he’s also a patient. In January 1997, he was one of the first ophthalmologists in the U.S. to have Lasik performed on his own eyes. His colleagues told him he was crazy, and that he would never operate again. But Dougherty was comfortable with the surgeons, and the process.

However, Dougherty was excited to get rid of his glasses and contact lenses and maintains that it was the best decision about his own health that he’s made in his life. He also claims that having the surgery done has helped him build even stronger bonds with his patients.

“Surgeons who have not had this done on their own eyes, what they have to say to patients I don’t think really rings true,” Dougherty explains. “Whereas when patients ask me about dry eye, they ask me how the procedure was, they ask me about side effects like night halo, I’m able, from a first-hand perspective, to let them know what to expect. I think it’s very reassuring for a lot of patients.”

Building a foundation

With the passing of his son, Dougherty started the Andrew Dougherty Vision Foundation, a charitable organization that gifts vision correction surgery to patients in the U.S. as well as abroad. Doing so has enabled Dougherty to fulfill one of his passions: exploring new countries and meeting new people. But it has also opened the door to much sadness.

“The tough thing in Haiti was the majority of patients I ended up seeing, there was nothing I could do for them,” Dougherty recalls. “They had preventable blindness, typically from glaucoma, and it was heartbreaking. And the most heart-wrenching part of it was telling people, ‘You’re blind, and there’s nothing I can do.’”

But Dougherty was also able to provide much good, gifting vision to those who hadn’t seen in years, as well as train local ophthalmologists to carry on the work.

“It was really powerful for the patients that we were able to help see for the first time, sometimes, in years; where they would look around the room, and you could tell that it has been years since they had been able to see,” he explains. “But I don’t just do the surgery and then take off. I also train some of the doctors. I try to leave that footprint wherever I go.”

Breakthrough technology

Dougherty, who is also an assistant clinical instructor of ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, has been instrumental in the development of the Staar Visian ICL, an implant placed in front of a natural lens but behind the iris, the colored part of the eye, to correct nearsightedness. Because the shape of the eye is not altered, as it is with a Lasik procedure, there are fewer side effects such as glare or halo at night, and loss of contrast.

“Lasik works really well for patients with low degrees with nearsightedness, but when you start pushing Lasik further you’re more likely to get side effects,” Dougherty explains. “I look at Lasik as a high definition procedure, and Visian ICL is an ultra-high definition procedure, because we’re leaving patients with normal corneas and normal eyes. So you just get a better quality of vision. I tell patients to think of it as the beauty of a natural lake versus the beauty of a manmade lake. Manmade lakes are very pretty, but natural lakes are always more beautiful.”

The other benefit of the technology is that it’s reversible. If a patient isn’t satisfied, the implant — which also has a UV blocker, so it works like a pair of sunglasses — can be removed.

Dougherty’s work in this area has also prompted a book, See For Yourself (Visionary Press, 2012), which highlights the different procedures available to patients seeking vision correction.

“I published this book to explain to patients that Lasik is not all there is, and it may not be the best option for them,” he explains. “I also wrote it to educate people that these procedures are less risky than a pair of contact lenses. Statistically, you take five times the risk of losing vision with a lens-related infection than you do with vision-correction surgery. These are very safe procedures.”

Living a double life

Dougherty says he sometimes feels like he is living two lives: his and his son Andrew’s. He loves to travel and meet new people, and believes that some of the things he does are things his son might have done himself.

And Dougherty never loses sight of what he is able to give back.

“I think the most rewarding thing I do is being able to gift vision to people, both to those who can afford it and those who cannot afford it,” he says. “It’s a remarkable experience. Each and every day is fantastic in that I get to see people’s lives change by giving them vision.”