Entering the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1996, Sterling Cannon knew he had a major decision to make: What specialty did he wish to pursue that would lead to a fulfilling lifelong career?
"I knew I like short procedures, and I like patient interaction," said Cannon, 37, who took advice from a resident at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Naples, Fla., to visit the facility and check out the world of ophthalmology.
"It was the coolest thing in the world," he said. "I ended up liking oculoplastics a lot just because it's a little bit more involved than your traditional ophthalmology. It's nuts and bolts. You're moving things around. You're putting things back to the way they should be. That, for some reason, was very satisfying to me."
Cannon's journey through the educational process led him to a yearlong internship at The Medical Center in Columbus, followed by a longer residency at Dean A. McGee Eye Institute in Oklahoma City, then a fellowship in oculoplastic and reconstructive surgery there.
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The stop in Columbus also proved life changing, with the mother of Cannon's best friend in high school offering to let him stay with the family, which had relocated here from Florida a few years earlier. He ended up falling in love with his friend's sister, Heather, which culminated in marriage and three children.
When a position opened up at West Georgia Eye Care in Columbus, Cannon took it and has settled into life in the Chattahoochee Valley.
"It was a fantastic fit. The community was growing, and the practice was growing, and they could support one. And I was trained and ready to go," said the oculoplastic surgeon, the only one in Columbus. He focuses primarily on illnesses, injuries and cosmetic improvements around the eyes.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with the Columbus resident recently about his job and everything that it involves.
First off, did you ever think about doing pure plastic surgery?
The eyelid is enough to keep me busy. There's enough going on in the area to really create it's own sub-specialty. I never thought about going into general plastics, because that just never appealed to me.
Describe what you do on the job?
I'll do one and a half days of surgery a week, mostly oculoplastic stuff. We do anything from tear-drain problems to thyroid eye disease, which is where the eyes are kind of popping out. We can go move some bones around and kind of get that eye to settle back. There's also moving eyelid malposition problems and lower-lid problems, where (the eyelid) is either scraping the eye or turning out and tearing (fluids) all over the place. We do a lot of cosmetic stuff as well. People will request lower-lid blepharoplasty and endoscopic brow lifts.
So there are two areas -- vanity work versus necessary medical problems?
Exactly. A lot of people don't know that some of the upper lid and brow work is covered by insurance. That's always a happy part of the interaction, when I tell them that their lids are bad enough that insurance will actually cover it to get them lifted. We'll do visual field tests and submit for insurance, and (insurers) make their determination. A lot of times the upper lids and often the eyebrow lifts will be covered by insurance because it can cut off your peripheral vision.
Do you work on accident victims?
They end up in my office as well. There's eyelid trauma. The worse thing is dog bites in kids because the dog always seems to know where the tear drain (duct) is. Reconstructing tear drains and things like that in children is one of those real emergent-type things.
Really, the eyelid is the eyeball's only protection. If the eyelid doesn't work properly, you don't see. It's really that important. So if you get a laceration on the eyelid, you do need someone that's skilled to put it back together.
How often are you called to the emergency room?
We share calls with all of the ophthalmologists in town. Typically, if there's something that the general ophthalmologist doesn't feel comfortable handling oculoplastic-wise, they'll be able to get it into the office the next day. But if you're on call, you'll get a few calls every day. It's not too quiet. A lot of bad things happen to good eyeballs.
Do you work with children, including infants?
Probably the biggest thing I do on children is tear-drain work. About 5 percent of kids are born with a clogged tear duct. So if by age 1 that's not opened up, we'll go and open them up.
Are aging baby boomers fueling growth in eye procedures, cosmetic or otherwise?
Absolutely. Things are picking up. As people realize that it's a procedure that's easy to tolerate and can make a huge difference in a small amount of time, it's becoming more and more popular. People are not shy about telling their friends and showing off. So, I think as more of the population becomes more accustomed to saying: Hey, I don't need this excess skin on my eyelids or my eyebrows hanging down into my vision, they become more comfortable with it.
And guys, too. The biggest growth we've seen is guys feeling comfortable enough to come in and get some help. We always promise not to turn anyone into Kenny Rogers (laughs). Poor Kenny, he was horrible for business. My favorite quote was when Jeff Foxworthy said that Kenny Rogers wouldn't come in the top five in a Kenny Rogers look-alike contest.
So Kenny Rogers' eye plastic surgery was the result of a not-so-well-done procedure?
It appears to have been a little too aggressive.
Could you repair something like that?
No, no. Not once you've taken out that much (skin) and moved that stuff around. The problem is that anytime you operate, scar tissue forms, and scar tissue begets scar tissue. So the more you move and the more you operate, the less mobile things become.
What's the most challenging aspect of your job?
Thyroid patients are probably the biggest challenge, because the nature of thyroid eye disease is that you have inflammation back behind the eye, pushing the eye forward and the lids pull up. Most of them are smokers. Smoking and thyroid is just awful. So you spend a lot of time trying to convince them to stop smoking, and the nature of the disease is that it doesn't heal well and it's a progressive problem that has multiple facets.
That includes eye motility problems, double vision, lid-position problems, the orbit is crowded. You've also got dryness issues. A lot of times they'll need radiation, so you've got to coordinate all of that care. My heart goes out to patients with thyroid eye disease just because it affects so much about the eye.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
The happy post-operative blepharoplasties and brow lifts, because it makes a huge difference in a small amount of time and with an easy-to-tolerate surgery. You can look at it and really tell that things have improved. And the patients are happy because they can see. They also look better.
There's also endoscopic tear-drain surgeries. I work with Dr. John Lee and that really is a satisfying surgery for chronic tearing and tear-drain obstruction. We do those together and those are really rewarding because, again, it's a quick procedure that's easy to tolerate that makes a big difference.
Tearing is a socially affecting problem, as well as irritating to the skin around the eye. But when you're crying all of the time -- and most of these patients have been suffering with it for a long time before they get to us -- to be able to relieve that and get rid of it is great.
How does Dr. Lee (an ear, nose and throat specialist) work with you on those procedures?
He does the sinus side of the surgery. With the tear-drain stuff, because the tears drain into the nose, he'll go into the nose and come in from the outside and we meet in the middle. I used to do them externally, which you have to dig through a lot of tissue. But, anatomically, it didn't make any sense. So I teamed up with him to form a better way, and it is a better way. It's just fantastic.
What advice do you have for someone who may be interested in your type of career?
Spend time in a clinic, because in medical school they seem to hide ophthamology from you. I think if they showed everyone ophthalmology, everyone would want to be ophthalmologists. (chuckles) So just spend a little bit of time somewhere watching some of the procedures.
It's a great career because when you're dealing with people's most treasured sense, you can really meet a huge need and change someone's life in a short amount of time.