Exhausted after an eight-hour work day? You may want to take a deep breath before you continue reading because James Pitzer Gills M.D. '59 makes the average office worker look sluggish. The Florida ophthalmologist pioneered the treatment of cataracts using lens implants and has performed more cataract and implant surgeries than anyone in the world; he established a teaching foundation to provide surgical training to physicians in developing countries; and he serves on a number of boards, including the Duke Medical Center's board of visitors.

      In his spare time, Gills competes in marathons, triathlons, and Ironman competitions. (He keeps a stationary bike in his office for between-patient workouts.) A devout Christian, he is active in his church, supports other ministries through a foundation bearing his name, and has written eight Christian, inspirational books. Bearing titles such as Love: Fulfilling the Ultimate Quest and The Prayerful Spirit, these books are distributed free to whoever requests them.

      But there's more. Gills invests in residential real estate communities, professional office buildings, and resort and multi-family housing. He donates land for parks and community recreation centers. And he finds the time to publish medical articles and textbooks. Also, he has endowed chairs at Johns Hopkins University and the University of South Florida to fund advanced research into techniques to prevent blindness.

      After earning his M.D. at Duke, Gills served his residency at the Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute at Johns Hopkins. He opened St. Luke's Cataract and Laser Institute in Tarpon Springs in 1969 and has become so well-known in his community that his name is always popping up for this honor or that accomplishment. In May, he received the Tampa Bay Ethics Award, given to an individual "whose personal, business, and professional life reflects those classic ethical standards that contribute so much to all that is good in our society--a model to admire."

      Married for more than three decades, he and his wife, Heather, have reared two children: Shea, an attorney, and James Pitzer "Pit" III, a third-year medical student at Duke.

      Both professionally and personally, though, Gills has faced some soul-searching challenges. When he started performing intraocular implant surgeries, colleagues were skep- tical of the procedure. "At the time, there was much criticism from many ophthalmologists who were not implanting lenses," says Gills. "In any area, if you do something different from the mainstream, others defend themselves by criticizing you. Pioneers always have arrows in their backs. I felt like a pioneer with a full quiver! The physicians who later copied me were some of my greatest critics. That's quite a compliment."

      Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss in older adults. They occur when old lens cells die and accumulate, causing impaired vision or blindness. Gills makes a self-sealing incision in the eye, then uses a phacoemulsifier to break up and remove the cataract, and finishes by inserting a tiny lens implant. He also offers patients the option of using topical anesthesia--drops that numb the eye area--or the more traditional anesthesia. Given the precision of the operation, and non-invasive nature of topical anesthesia, many patients can resume driving or reading almost immediately.

      Growing up, Gills attended church with his family three times a week and did daily Bible study, but he says religion didn't permeate his work or life until he encountered professional resistance to the lens implant technique early in his career. Feeling isolated, he turned to prayer and reading Scripture three hours a day. Surrendering his spirit to the Lord's will, says Gills, "was the most important event in my life, because I'm sure I would not have done very well in medicine, or in life, without the love of the Lord."

      Gills is also passionate about athletics. Among the dozens of sports achievements to his credit are completing six Double Iron Triathlons, eighteen Boston Marathons, and mountain terrain endurance events covering more than 100 miles. In 1991, he acquired the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which oversees such grueling competitions as the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championship (in which he's also competed).

      "I feel as good at sixty-one as I've ever felt in my life," he says. Beyond a daily workout, he bikes to work and urges his employees to be physically active.

      When Gills decided to focus exclusively on cataract surgery using lens implants nearly a quarter of a century ago, he took a risky step. But, as in other areas of his life, taking calculated risks--and pushing himself to greater heights--has paid off. "I told patients that if they wanted a regular cataract extraction, they needed to go elsewhere," he says. "I thought I'd have more time for wind-surfing and water skiing. But, in fact, instead of my medical practice getting smaller, as I had anticipated, the practice grew....Chutzpah can be either good or bad, smart or stupid. It appears that this was good chutzpah."

--by Bridget Booher
Back to contents page

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor