Seeing clearly now

Tim Unruh
Special to the Telegram
Luther Fry, left, with his son, Eric Fry, following his first of two cataract surgeries in July.

A few uneasy moments darkened the hours leading up to Luther Fry’s first cataract surgery, but it wasn’t because his firstborn son, Eric Fry, was holding the knife.

This time, Luther was the patient, after performing nearly 50,000 such surgeries in his illustrious 46-year career.

“I wasn’t worried about (Eric) doing the surgery. I’ve watched videos of his surgeries fairly often. I don’t think anybody in the country is better at it, and most of them don’t do as well,” the elder ophthalmologist said.

After all, Luther had a hand in his son’s training, conducting, “Cataract Boot Camp” on weekends while Eric was in ophthalmology residency at the University of Kansas Medical School.

But a generations-old saying kept ringing in his head: “A doctor who operates on his family has a fool for a patient and an incompetent for a doctor,” the elder Fry said.

When the time came to have his fogged vision repaired, Luther Fry was becoming a professional patient.

“I then realized I’d had a hip replaced, a broken foot repaired and a cardiac ablation over the past six months. I told Ardie I’d become a consumer rather than a provider,” Luther said, referring to Ardis Fry, his wife. They’ve been married 49 years.

The practice they started together in 1974, that made them both revered around the nation and world, had come full circle.

Like his patients, Luther’s sight waned a bit.

“I just gradually, over a period of years, started having problems; glare at night with car lights,” he said. “That was the thing that pushed me into it.”

Eric had checked his eyes annually for several years.

“About six months ago, it had gotten worse and Eric said, ‘That’s it,’ ” Luther said.

Cataracts in both eyes had to be removed.

Having Eric do the surgeries “was quite a surprise,” Ardis Fry said.

Early conversations about who would remove the cataracts, first tabbed partner Bill Clifford as the surgeon.

“I think (Luther) thought that maybe it would bother Eric at first,” Ardis said. “Eric said he thought it would be fine for him to do it. He has quite a number of cases (10,000) under his belt.”

She admitted to some anxiety during Eric’s first cataract surgeries.

“I was so afraid something would happen with my dear son, but I was also proud,” she said.

As a sort of covert test during weeks leading up to his surgery, Luther was scheduled as a “secret patient,” at the clinic, just west of the Fry Eye Associates surgery center in Garden City.

Sierra Scott, a certified ophthalmic technician who conducted testing “was a little nervous” when she went to greet her patient in the waiting room, and noticed he was the practice founder.

Pre-operative surgical counseling, done by longtime staff member Vickie Heeke, went more quickly than normal, Luther said.

“Dr. Fry has done this for so many years, and he was the patient,” Heeke said. “He got to experience what the patients experience.”

The process, which focuses heavily on patient education, received high marks from the longtime boss.

“As a secret shopper, I didn’t see anything I’d like to change,” he said, other than a couple of electronic signature pads that were “scratched up; old and tired looking.”

They will be replaced.

With everything falling neatly into place, Eric, 45, who joined the practice in April 2008, was about to operate on Dad, who happens to be the eyesight aficionado of southwest Kansas and beyond.

Adding to the Fry Eye legacy did prompt a bit of fond reminiscence.

Luther (Ardis calls him “Lu”) recalled the early days when a young Eric at age 3 or 4 would push his younger brother, David, in a wheelchair “and go running around the office. We tried to keep them under control if there were still patients there.”

The senior Fry also admitted to having a bad dream just before the first cataract removal in mid-July.

“The nightmare was, for some reason, that they scheduled me to do surgery and I hadn’t done surgeries for four years, and I was grumping to Ardis,” Lu recalled. “I went over (to the surgery center) and was trying to manipulate the operating microscope. I couldn’t even find the eye, and finally decided to call Eric. Then I woke up.”

Prepping for the first of two surgeries was “definitely kind of surreal,” Eric said. “When I was young, he’d do the same thing to me, look into my eyes. When I was in high school, he taught me how to run the slit lamp, a microscope used to examine the fine structures of the eye.”

Early this summer, he realized, “The tables have turned. Looking into his eyes to examine him for surgery, was a little bit nerve racking.”

He figured that the moment would eventually come.

“He was needing cataract surgery, and it would be my job to either refer him or do it myself,” Eric said. “Everything kind of worked out. I felt confident that I was as good as anybody. It certainly is another chapter that has come to pass.”

Luther performed cataract surgeries on his mother, the late Dora Fry, in the early 1980s.

Both procedures on Luther, each lasting nine or fewer minutes — the final one July 30 — went smoothly. More than 40 years after performing his first cataract surgery, the old master assumed the role as cataract surgery patient.

“I was expecting that I’d feel some pressure, or occasionally a bit of pain. I didn’t feel a thing in either eye,” he recalled. “All I could see was some movement and a lot of bright colors, mostly pinks.”

There was perhaps more conversation between surgeon and patient.

“I had no idea where Eric was at during the surgery. He kind of clued me in like ‘OK, I’m putting the lens in now.’ ”

Observing from behind a glass wall, some 10 feet away, was Ardis Fry, listening to narrator Janet Lowrance. Each surgery is documented by video, and patients are sent home with a digital video recording on CD.

Ardis admitted to “saying some Hail Marys” as she watched.

“Janet asked ‘Are you nervous?’ It’s a little different if it’s somebody that you love,” Ardis recalled.

Now retired, the registered nurse assisted in thousands of Luther’s surgeries.

“If there would have been something that had not gone quite right,” she said, “I would have been a little nervous.”

Back at the clinic, the workday for many who could break away came to a halt, as they slipped off to watch the “live feed” video of the surgery.

“Everybody stopped and crowded into the lunchroom (and conference room) to watch the surgery,” Eric said. “It was pretty funny. Everybody was about as excited as I was and my dad was.”

It was an event, especially to “old-timers” in the practice.

“I couldn’t believe Dr. Eric was doing his dad’s surgery,” said Cheryl Messenger, certified ophthalmic technician and coding specialist who has worked there 27 1/2 years.

“It really brought to light how much time has passed,” she said. “We clapped when it was over. We didn’t have any doubt it was going to go well. Dr. Eric is a natural, just like his father.”

A 31-year veteran, Sonya Barton, certified ophthalmic assistant who works in the insurance department, was impressed.

“It was an honor to see that,” she said. “It was as if Dr. Eric didn’t know it was his dad on the operating table.”

The pair were joined by Heeke, who has worked 35 years for Fry Eye Associates, and Eugene Kemper, technical auditor, facility manager “and snow shoveler during blizzards,” who has worked in the practice nearly 41 years.

“Dr. Luther is a superb patient, and a lot of doctors aren’t,” Kemper said. “He followed directions. Of course, he knew what the directions would be.

“Dr. Eric knew we’d be watching.”

The youngest of the Fry clan, David, 43, was in Garden City on a visit from his home in Overland Park, when the first surgery occurred.

“I think (Eric) was a little nervous,” David said. “The surgery took another minute or two. He was actually taking his time, making sure everything was done with absolute precision.

“We were kind of joking about everybody watching, that if Eric did make some sort of a mistake, he would probably hear about it from the other room. It was kind of one of those deals where there was very little risk. Pretty much, it’s all upside.”

The veterans found out later that Eric gave his mom a thumbs up and repeated his father’s common post-op comment to Luther:

“You were a good patient, and that helps every case.”

Both the experience and the results were spectacular to the 78-year-old Fry.

“It was a piece of cake,” Luther said. “My vision is great. Both eyes are good, but it’s hard to get used to not wearing glasses. I’ve worn them since the third grade (in Montezuma, southwest of Dodge City).”

Luther’s surgical eye repairs are another development in his stellar career.

“He started from scratch and went worldwide,” said Clifford, an ophthalmologist who has been a partner in the practice since 1995. He performed Ardis’s cataract surgeries in December 2006.

Clifford’s daughter, Frances, just started medical school at the University of Kansas.

Will she choose ophthalmology as her speciality?

“I sure hope so,” Clifford said.

The legacy may live on.