Whole new world: Ophthalmologist Dr. Darrell Lewis says cornea transplants ‘life-altering’ for those who receive gift of sight from donors

Cornea specialist Dr. Darrell Lewis and his eye model (Kristen Lispcombe/NSHA).
Cornea specialist Dr. Darrell Lewis and his eye model (Kristen Lispcombe/NSHA).

What exactly did Dr. Darrell Lewis see in becoming an ophthalmologist, and more specifically a cornea specialist?

His passion for the science of eyes actually started with a more artistic endeavour.

“I’ve always been interested in photography,” the Collingwood, Ont., native explained, while taking a break between his regular daily duties earlier this month inside his Victoria building office at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

In fact, hanging on one of his office walls is a framed collage of wild life photography, with pictures he snapped himself, including one of a white grizzly bear that had been standing a mere 15-feet away from him at the time, on a river bed nestled deep in the Great Bear Rainforest on the B.C. coast.

His office shelves display vintage cameras and surgical videography awards, an homage to the physician’s more creative side. Although humble to admit, Dr. Lewis has even won some photography awards from Dalhousie University’s Global Health Office.

“My grandfather was very much into photography and so since my very early teenage years, I’ve been doing some forms of photography, and really macro photography, so you get into these really minutiae-type things,” he said.

“And being an engineer, I also got into fiddling with circuit boards and electronics, and all that sort of thing, so doing that fine dexterity kind of work,” said Dr. Lewis, who completed his chemical engineering degree at the University of Waterloo. “I like working with my hands.”

“Initially, because I liked images so much, and optics, I was actually headed towards radiology, but then I went away to Ghana in West Africa and did some vision outreach there.”

It was that inspirational one-month trip with non-profit group Unite for Sight that made Dr. Lewis finally fall in love with ophthalmology.

“We brought donated glasses down with us, went across the central capital of Ghana and fanned out from there to do vision screenings, primarily for cataracts,” he recalled.

“We dispensed medications … that were also donated and then we would bring those patients back into the city, where there was a non-for-profit cataract surgery centre, so that was my first exposure to eye surgery.”

Dr. Lewis enjoyed working directly with patients and knew he wanted to incorporate more of that into his work back in Canada.

“With ophthalmology, I get to help patients, I get work one-on-one with people,” said Dr. Lewis, who also completed his medical degree at the University of Ottawa, residency at Dalhousie University and fellowship at The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.

Dr. Lewis, who started his position at the QEII last September, has a varied weekly schedule, including some clinic days at the Eye Care Centre, others performing transplants in the operating room and when he can, days in the office conducting research that will further innovation in cornea tissue transplants and ultimately improve patient outcomes.

“Especially doing cornea transplants, I get a good sense of pride if I take a cornea that has … all kinds of problems and is sick and is unhealthy and the patient can’t see – and then you do a transplant and the patient can see again – that’s pretty powerful,” he said.

“That leaves me with warm and fuzzy feelings when I go home at night and I think that’s important as far as job satisfaction – helping people.”

Dr. Lewis hopes others will consider helping people by becoming organ and tissue donors – including their cornea – as being “able to give someone their life back from a functional standpoint is pretty significant.”

Being able to give someone the gift of sight is “truly life-altering,” he said.