Lens into Another World
Medical Matters, Lane County Medical Society
When you meet Dr. Bala Ambati, he greets you with a warm, sincere handshake. With all of his accomplishments, he remains humble and soft-spoken. He was born in India, but came to America when he was just three years old. Once in school, Ambati completed two grades a year, graduating high school at age 11, and eventually becoming the world’s youngest person to graduate medical school at age 17. “I think in a cookie-cutter system it’s very easy for kids to get bored. I know for myself, if I had gotten bored, I probably would have gotten into more trouble,” Ambati says of being able to complete school at his own pace.
Today the Doogie Howser jokes have subsided. He recently found a home at Pacific ClearVision Institute, after moving to Eugene with his wife in 2016. “The practice here is a great group of doctors and staff, one that I wanted to work with,” Ambati says. “There is a nice environment, with a great base of patients, and there’s a definite need in terms of number of surgeries done each year.”
Ambati chose Ophthalmology as a specialty because it is the culmination of all of the things he enjoys about medicine. It combines internal medicine with general surgery, and pediatrics—his three favorite rotations while he was in medical school. “With Ophthalmology, you get to take care of patients with all kinds of diseases, you get to do exquisite, delicate surgery, and you get to take care of patients of all ages,” Ambati says.
“Vision is very precious. Generally, what we do works. I can help people see again, and that’s a wonderful feeling,” he says. “The day after surgery is always my favorite day of the week because somebody can see again.”
The Doctor as the Patient
What is instantly noticeable about Ambati is that, for such an authority on vision correction procedures, he wears glasses. He is a minus ten on the vision scale, so he explored the possibility of Lasik surgery when he was younger, especially during his fellowship at Duke. “Before I was married, I used to claim it’s because girls like me better with glasses,” Ambati recalls. “But the real reason is my corneal thickness is not sufficient for the amount of correction it needs.”
While he was too nearsighted to be an ideal candidate for surgery at that age, another opportunity to surgically correct his vision is just around the corner. “I’m 40 now, and in a few years I may likely start losing the ability to read without bifocals,” Ambati says. “I’m sure that will happen to me at some point, and when it does, I will likely get multifocal lens implants which will give both distance vision and near vision.”
In the United States, there is one Ophthalmologist for about 17,000 people, according to 2012 data from the International Council of Ophthalmology. According to 2016 data in India, the second most populated country in the world, there is one doctor for about 90,000 people. In parts of Africa, such as Ghana, there is one Ophthalmologist for about half a million people. “When you get into those kinds of numbers, what that means is in America, people will go to the eye doctor when they can’t drive, or read the newspaper, or see the computer,” Ambati explains. “But in somewhere like Africa, people go to the eye doctor when they can’t see the food on their plate.”
Ambati spends between one and two weeks a year traveling abroad with various non-profit organizations, volunteering his time and services to communities neglecting ophthalmological care. In developing countries, it is typical for the youngest, female member of a family to be designated as the caretaker for the blinded adult. Ambati describes seeing a ripple effect play out in not just the people he helps, but within their families as well.
“The cataracts and diseases are much more advanced, and more challenging surgically, but also more impactful when you take them out because these people are literally blind to the point that they need to be taken care of by a family member,” Ambati says. “When you help them see again, what that means is, you’re helping that patient, but you’re also helping that family and community.”
In his travels, Ambati has witnessed a spectrum of living conditions. While each trip is punctuated with feelings of accomplishment, volunteering abroad has its highs and lows. In 2013, Ambati was in West Bengal, India on an outreach trip. He and a nurse were volunteering on their day off at Mother Teresa House. “Unfortunately, a woman cam in, and she had tried to kill herself by swallowing kerosene,” Ambati says. “For two hours, the nurse who I had been working with, Anna Marie, and I resuscitated her, and tried to remove the kerosene in order to keep her alive until we could get her stabilized. Ultimately, she got an infection and died.”
This past year, Ambati traveled to India twice with the organization SightLife, an eye bank with the mission to eliminate corneal blindness worldwide by 2040. Throughout his career, Ambati has also volunteered with Mercy International, Project Hope, and Orbis International, an organization with a “Flying Eye Hospital,” an airplane with an operating room on board. “I perform cataract surgery as well as corneal transplants,” Ambati says. “It’s been a privilege going to all of these places.”
Through his work, Ambati has participated in miraculous, life changing moments for people of all ages. He fondly remembers a particular trip to the Philippines, where he treated children with eye disease. “One child has lost her natural lens due to injury—she had gotten hit with a stick—we replaced it with a plastic lens,” Ambati recalls. “It’s almost magical because it’s a ten-minute procedure, and she was able to get off the table and see. That was quite remarkable.”
Ambati does not just go abroad for volunteer work; it’s a practice he consistently maintains here in our community. He and his colleagues at Pacific ClearVision Institute volunteer once a month with the Eugene Mission. They treat people with eye problems, and arrange for surgery if a patient needs any further medical attention. “We’re always looking to deepen our relationships with the rest of the community in town,” Ambati says.
In his standard practice, Ambati estimates that he performs about 60 cataract surgeries a month, in addition to Lasik surgery, corneal transplants, and crosslinking for a disease called Keratoconus. The ClearVision facility cares for the full spectrum of eye disease, and is even running an clinical trial for crosslinking without epithelial removal with techniques to strengthen the cornea. “We are really proud to offer the leading techinques and the advanced technologies that we can here,” Ambati says.
He loves his work, and it often permeates into other aspects of his life. Ambati is an avid traveler, however he rarely travels just for fun, combining medical conferences with day trips. “I like to travel new places with my wife, but I think the last time we had a pure vacation was our honeymoon in 2015, but we make sure we have plenty of time to have some fun whenever we go to conferences.” Ambati says.
“If I could do things over again, I’d pretty much do things the same way,” Ambati says with contentment.