I couldn’t think of anything that looked more fun than ophthalmology.” So says Dr. James Freeman, for two decades now a second-generation ophthalmologist. Growing up around eye care — his father practiced ophthalmology in Memphis — Freeman felt a natural pull toward the field and, after earning his medical degree at UT-Memphis in 1990, took a three-year residency at LSU and a one-year fellowship at UC-Irvine before returning to the Bluff City for good.
“You can fix most people who come to see you,” explains Freeman. “And you can fix them by doing a fun surgery. No one’s going to die because of something you did or didn’t do.” People are naturally concerned with any ailment related to their eyes, but advancements in corneal surgery have made repairing eye damage much closer to routine than it may have been a generation ago. “With internal medicine,” explains Freeman, “there’s a lot of deduction involved. It’s hard to look at something, put your finger on it and say, ‘That’s the problem.’ In ophthalmology, it’s so gratifying to literally see what the problem is. And our surgeries are short, just 10 or 15 minutes.” (Corneal transplants are another matter and take longer.)
Freeman spent seven years as medical director at Mid-South Eye Bank, a renowned nonprofit with the mission of storing corneal tissue for transplants. “It’s the second-oldest continuously operating eye bank in the country,” says Freeman. One of Freeman’s chief concerns is the low percentage of cornea donors in the region, ironic considering the impact Mid-South Eye Bank is making, largely with corneal tissue imported from other cities.
Another of Freeman’s concerns is the insidious nature of glaucoma, an ailment of the optic nerve that doesn’t present symptoms until it’s too late. African Americans are five times as likely as the general population to suffer glaucoma (which can lead to blindness), but the condition can only be identified through screenings. A screening is recommended every one or two years for African Americans after the age of 35. Says Freeman, “I hate to see people with eye damage from glaucoma that could have been prevented.”
When he’s not seeing patients at Memphis Eye and Cataract Associates (MECA), Freeman enjoys flying. He first earned his pilot’s license at age 17. But it’s Freeman’s day job that continues to bring him the most reward. “Our outcomes are better than a lot of specialties,” he says. “Patients are happy they came to see us. That’s tremendously gratifying. Makes it more fun to come to work each day.”