Mark J. Mannis, professor and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Science and director of the UC Davis Eye Center, recently was honored with the Cornea Society’s most prestigious award, the Castroviejo Medal, for his significant contributions in the field of cornea and anterior segment surgery. Mannis specializes in corneal transplantation and treating external diseases of the eye.

Q: You’ve been an eye surgeon for nearly 35 years. What inspired you to follow this lifelong career path?

A: I had no plans to go into medicine. In fact, I was in graduate school in philosophy and religion when I had an encounter with the medical system that inspired me to become a physician. I had to start the sciences from scratch – probably the hardest thing I have ever done. My first encounter with ophthalmology as a student bowled me over with excitement about a field that combined sophisticated medical therapies with elegant and delicate surgery, high technology, and the ability to make lifelong bonds with my patients. It was truly love at first sight, and I have never looked back.

Q: You’ve helped a lot of individuals see more clearly again. What was one case that was the most personally rewarding?

A: One patient who stands out was the recipient of the first artificial cornea surgery we did – in fact, the first in Northern California. He was a veterinarian from Ukraine who had been blinded in both eyes by a chemical injury 38 years prior. He could perceive only light and dark and had never seen his children or grandchildren. The morning after the procedure, when we took the bandages off, it was nothing short of miraculous. None of us could control the tears as he looked at and saw his wife’s face – for the first time in 38 years – and his children. He could not stop saying how beautiful we all were! To this day, he retains good vision. Being an agent in an event like this is life changing.

Q: How has the practice of ophthalmology changed or not changed?

A: In ophthalmology, the rate of technological development progresses at a truly stunning pace. Not only are we doing an entirely new repertoire of medical and surgical therapies that we did not do even five years ago, but the way we do these procedures has completely changed. Cataract surgery, for example, has become wonderfully efficient with an extremely high rate of success and is nothing similar to the procedure I learned as a resident-in-training 35 years ago. Not only is it a great time to be an ophthalmologist, but if one does have eye disease, there are more resources available to us now than ever before. The one thing that has not changed is the sacred relationship between patient and physician and the covenant of care that exists when we take on the responsibility of preserving vision in
our patients.

Q: What do you think has the most potential for treating eye diseases that are incurable today?

A: We will likely see the increased use of stem cell technology in the treatment of macular degeneration; the emergence of gene therapy in diseases of the retina and other parts of the eye; technologies that will allow us to generate repair of the optic nerve; and increasingly sophisticated surgical modalities that will provide remarkable outcomes for our patients. Here at UC Davis, we envision the building of a dedicated eye center that will house both clinical services as well as research facilities that will encourage the exchange between clinicians and basic scientists. Our goal is to make it a resource for the city, the region, the country and the world.

Q: What would people be surprised to know about you?

A: Outside of work, I am a dedicated, if not particularly talented, bagpiper!