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One To Watch | Jul/Aug '15

One to Watch: Jeff Pettey, MD

In case there was ever any doubt, the future of ophthalmology is in good hands! Millennial EYE presents a series highlighting the One to Watch. In each issue, we will profile a rising star, one who may not be advanced in years but has already made great advances in our field.

Jeff Pettey, MD

Jeff Pettey, MD

Jeff Pettey, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology, the Director of Education, and the Residency Program Director at the John A. Moran Eye Center, University of Utah, in Salt Lake City.

1. Please share with us your background.

I grew up on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah, in an amazingly loving family with four brothers and one sister. Family life bordered on controlled anarchy, and I thrived in the chaos around the home. Aside from social pursuits, I found school a bit bland and wasn’t a terribly engaged student. I even had a teacher tell my mom I would be lucky to graduate high school, and I can’t say that I blamed her for the sentiment.

After exceeding her and others’ expectations with a high school diploma, I signed up for a Mormon mission, spending the next 2 consecutive years in southern regions of Russia. Being immersed in a culture entirely different from my own changed me, and I returned to the States committed to make the most of life.

I had no idea if I had any academic chops starting freshman year at the University of Utah. Freshman biology was essentially my first exposure to hard science, and it spoke to me like a Bob Dylan album on a long road trip … my language. I was drawn to teaching and may have ended up in a 10th grade science class were it not for the potential impact being a physician held.

2. What drew you to ophthalmology and, specifically, to your field of interest?

Although I had some previous exposure to ophthalmology prior to medical school, I was not planning on pursuing ophthalmology. Like many of us, it was finding the right mentor at the right time that changed my course. For me, that person was Paul Weber, MD, a glaucoma specialist at the Havener Eye Center at Ohio State. Simply put, he was the person I wanted to grow up to be. Watching him practice ophthalmology combined with selfless teaching and mentoring affected me so powerfully that I dropped everything else for the chance to become an ophthalmologist.

3. Please describe your current position.

I am the Director of Education, the Residency Director, and the Medical Student Clerkship Director at the John A. Moran Eye Center as well as Chief of the Ophthalmology Service at the Salt Lake City VA hospital. I practice complex anterior segment surgery and comprehensive ophthalmology. I am also the Medical Director of our domestic outreach Charity Surgery Day and oversee our international outreach division’s international ophthalmology education collaboratives.

4. Who are/were your mentors?  

I’ve benefitted from dedicated mentors at each step toward ophthalmology. These mentors include Bhupendra Patel, MD, in my undergraduate years; Paul Weber, MD, in medical school; Mark Mifflin, MD, in early residency; Alan Crandall, MD, during residency; Geoff Tabin, MD, during fellowship; and Randy Olson, MD, and Bala Ambati, MD, PhD, in my early career.

5. What has been the most memorable experience of your career thus far?

This is difficult. The most poignant have been outreach trips—catching myself on fire while operating in Nepal, being in Guatemala with Senator Rand Paul, experiencing Navajo Nation surgery with my daughter, taking a 38-hour cargo ship ride to Satawan, Micronesia …

6. What are some new technological advances that you have found particularly exciting? Which advances in the pipeline are you most enthusiastic or curious about?

My wish is for a phaco-like procedure for glaucoma treatment. Worldwide cataract blindness is a solvable problem in our lifetimes. Glaucoma needs a similar breakthrough treatment with minimally required follow-up for the developing world. Stents are a step but not yet the solution.

Sustainable drug delivery systems capable of delivering meds for age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and uveitis are also of importance. The majority of preventable or curable blindness is in the developing world, and these devices will be key to succeeding on a worldwide scale.

7. What is the focus of some of your research?

My greatest interest is understanding how to address the challenges of global blindness. To date, my research interests have been seeking to find solid evidence for phacoemulsification safety and efficiency. So often the information we have comes from experts based on their anecdotal experience. Our team developed the cubinator and subsequently a model allowing us to run hundreds of experiments isolating individual settings for fluidics, phaco power, and phaco modality, giving objective data-driven answers.

8. What is a typical day in your life? What keeps you busy,fulfilled, and passionate?

A typical day for me includes breakfast with the kids, a ride or run into work, emails, meetings with students or residents, clinic or surgery, home with the kids, coaching soccer, family time, and bed.

Email keeps me busy. Family keeps me fulfilled. Outreach keeps me passionate.

9. What advice can you offer to individuals who are just now choosing their career paths after finishing residency or fellowship?

Landing your perfect job the first time is unusual. There are so many variables affecting your satisfaction; many are out of your hands, and many you won’t even know yet. If your expectation for your first job is to “try it out,” you will be able to adapt and, if necessary, move on to a new job much easier.

Consider renting rather than buying a home until you are sure where you will be and where your income will settle out. Get two financial advisors and go with the one you work best with.

Take time for yourself. The drive for professional success can cut out the things that will truly bring you wellbeing.

10. Tell us about an innovative procedure you are performing or a new imaging/diagnostic tool that has improved your practice.

It is hard to characterize an extracapsular cataract surgery as new; however, a truly elegant sutureless extracapsular cataract surgery is an essential tool for anyone practicing international ophthalmology. To take a patient with a brown or black nucleus, pseudoexfoliation, and a small pupil and leave him or her with the same vision as our 20/40 femto cases—that is my ultimate goal. This procedure has made me a more complete and better surgeon for all of my cases.