I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Boxer Wachler, M.D., the “Godfather of Keratoconus” and director of the Boxer Wachler Vision Institute in Los Angeles, California.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was young, I always had a sense of compassion and a desire to help others. In school, I would stand out from the crowd to come to the aid of a fellow student who was having a difficult time or a chal- lenge. As a boy, I loved working with my hands and made model cars and airplanes which was fairly meticulous work. My parents, who were hair stylists and good with their hands, noted my dexterity. They planted the seed that I would be a good surgeon if I wanted to pursue that. My uncle Jeff Wacksman was a pioneering pediatric urologist in Cincinnati, Ohio and he also provided encouragement. The feel-ing of wanting to help other people never left me which is what led me to eventually pursue being an oph- thalmologist (eye surgeon).
How have your personal challenges informed your career path?
I started to learn “grit” at a young age through getting teased for wearing glasses. You know, the “four eyes” comments ☺ Later in college, I rowed on both the UCLA and Edinburgh University crew teams. Being an athlete in that grueling sport was great training for dealing with adversity and performing under pressure. Grit is what enables people to face challenges in life and not complain and run away, but in-stead dig in and deal with unexpected things that happen in life. Some might say we are edging towards a “grit” crisis in our country.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Doctor”
1. Sometimes Being a Pioneer Makes You Unpopular with YouOne of my specialties is treating a disease of the cornea (outer lens of the eye) called Keratoconus, where the cornea bulges out like a hernia and can cause profound loss of vision. Originally I was trained to do invasive corneal transplants for Keratoconus, but these transplants had a lot of risks including going blind. I figured out how to treat this disease with minimally invasive procedures such as Holcomb C3-R crosslinking (named after Olympic gold medal bobsledder Steven Holcomb) and Intacs. When I made my first presentation about my research results of Holcomb C3-R and how it can prevent cornea trans-plants, I thought the audience of eye surgeons would give me a standing ovation. I was shocked how many cornea transplant surgeons tried to undermine my efforts and credibility through various attacks on me personally and professionally. I later realized their revenue from doing cornea transplants was threat-ened by me and my Holcomb C3-R, which is 100% non-invasive and only a 1-day recovery. I later gave at TEDx talk about my odyssey
I never gave up on the procedure despite peer pressure because I always knew what I was doing was in patients’ best interest. In 2010 at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Steven Holcomb won Olympic gold (whom I had earlier treated with this procedure) which silenced my critics and led me to naming the procedure in his honor. For more information, please visit keratoconusinserts.com
2. There is a Lot of Paperwork
There is a fair amount of “paper pushing” for doctors (luckily my handwriting is not too bad). In fact, the paperwork has steadily been increasing over the years. Having a capable and caring staff to assist in helping patients with their medical problems and also in the administrative side of practicing medicine is important. I like this quote, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
3. Prepare to be Saddled with Significant Student Loans for Medical School
I remember when I first met with the financial aid counselor at my medical school. That’s when the real numbers of the debt I was incurring finally hit home and became real. I was a bit shocked. Shortly afterwards I adjusted to the notion that I’ll be in debt for a while and life resumed normalcy again.
4. The Joy You Will Experience Being Able to Change Someone’s Life is Indescribable
There is a difference between the idea of “profoundly helping someone get her or his life back” and the feeling of doing so. I never before knew that I would feel such strong emotions as a doctor when I help people who are desperate, have no other options, and I’m their last hope. It’s quite humbling since I feel I’ve been allowed to have this gift to help many people over my career where other doctors either tried and weren’t successful or they said, “Nothing can be done for you. Sorry. You just need to live with your problem.” Not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate what I do.
5. It’s Important to Have Outside Interests to Balance Being a Doctor
I later learned the importance of the healthy pursuit of interests and hobbies outside of the practice of medicine. This provides balance to the consuming occupation of being a physician. When I was in college at UCLA and Edinburgh University, I was on the rowing team. After those rowing days were over, I always missed that experience of training and racing in a boat. Several years ago I learned how to scull (rowing with two oars). Now I periodically compete in local and national rowing competitions which requires months of training to prepare me for the rigors of a “pedal to the metal” 1,000 meter race. I also enjoy writing and authored three books on Keratoconus. Last year I had my first mainstream book for the public published, PERCEPTUAL INTELLIGENCE, a pop psychology book about how we interpret our experiences to separate fantasy from reality (I was a psychobiology major at UCLA).
Social media and reality TV create a venue for people to share their personal stories. Do you think more transparency about your personal story can help or harm your field of work? Can you explain?
I think doctors can use social media and reality TV to make themselves more human by sharing personal stories. There also is public interest in getting a glimpse into the personal lives of healers. That’s part of the reason for medical TV dramas which include the personal lives of doctors (Marcus Welby, MD andRoom 222 in the 1970s, St. Elsewhere in 1980s, ER in the 1990s and 2000s to present day Chicago Med). Doctors who embrace social media can help their patients and the public better relate to them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant to your life?
I love many quotes from Ben Franklin and others, but my favorite and most impactful quote is from my mother-in-law Regina Boxer, “It’s just by the way the cards are dealt that you are helping and not being helped.” I’ve been married to Selina for 25 years and this quote has always resonated with me. It’s behind my philanthropic activities which includes personally giving out socks to the homeless and dedicating our foundation to U.S. Olympic gold medal bobsled driver Steven Holcomb who had Keratoconus.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to do good to help others. In medical school I was interested in proving what the purpose of life is. I wrote an article in the Huffington Post attempting to prove life’s purpose is to do good. It can be as small as letting someone into your lane while driving in traffic or holding the elevator for someone you see speeding down the hall to catch it. Here’s the article:
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Originally published at medium.com