• Bruce T. Haight, MD: A Life on the Puzzler’s Grid

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    What is an eight-letter term to describe a crossword puzzle addict?

    I’ll answer that question below. But first, I have to say that one of the times that I feel most inadequate is when I’m attempting to solve a crossword puzzle. I say “attempt” because my wife works on them regularly and is pretty good at it. She tries to involve me by seeking my opinion on words that she thinks I should be able to get. If I contribute two or three words to a puzzle, I consider that an achievement. So, I have great respect for those who routinely complete crossword puzzles with apparent ease.

    If I hold in esteem those who work on crossword puzzles as geniuses, I consider those who write them are a quantum leap higher. After struggling in vain to fill in those contrary blank squares, I often wonder, “How in the world does someone make up these things?” The answer to that question comes in the form of Dr. Bruce T. Haight.

    Dr. Haight creating crosswords
    Dr. Haight pictured at his desk, creates a crossword that looks like a dog. 

    Dr. Haight is an ophthalmologist of considerable accomplishment who also happens to construct crossword puzzles. Not only has he created more than 400 puzzles to date, but his puzzles and other works have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association, some syndicated in newspapers all over the country.

    Dr. Haight’s narrative begins in Beloit, Wis., where he grew up. He went on to earn his Bachelor of Science and medical degrees at the University of Wisconsin Madison, graduating Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate. After medical school, he went west to complete his residency in ophthalmology at the University of California San Diego. The nice weather must have agreed with him, because he remained in San Diego, where he joined a private practice in 1982 and served as an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at UCSD and chief of ophthalmology at Grossmont Hospital.

    At the San Diego Medical Society, Dr. Haight was elected as a “Top Doctor” and worked with the Food Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency overseeing online pharmacies and curtailing the illegal sales of narcotics. His professional career has also spanned a range of research interests, including radial keratotomy, intraocular lenses, viscoelastic agents and ophthalmic toxicity studies.

    Then about seven years ago, Dr. Haight discovered that he had another exceptional talent: constructing crossword puzzles.

    One of Dr. Haight's Crossword puzzles for the New York Times

    “Sometimes I’ll make a whole puzzle in between [seeing] patients,” he noted in an interview for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. How does he do it? The following is his four-part explanation as recorded in the Sentinel.

    First, he comes up with the theme. Depending on the size of the puzzle, there may be a dozen longer answers around this theme. Next, he fits those answers into the puzzle grid and decides where the black squares should go. He is known for forming those squares into recognizable shapes such as a dog, musical note or even a large letter that becomes part of the words abutting it.

    Then all the smaller and non-theme words need to be filled in, with everything lining up horizontally and vertically. Dr. Haight says he is assisted by computer programs, such as Crossword Computer, but that he provides the word lists. Finally, it’s up to him to write clues for all the answers.

    Cleverness counts. Solvers don’t want the same old prompts over and over. Same with the answers.

    “You want words that are common enough to where most solvers are going to have seen the word before,” he says. “You want entertaining words that are vibrant and interesting.”

    Among Dr. Haight’s admirers is Will Shortz, crosswords editor at The New York Times, who has commented that he admires Haight’s creativity and has seen his puzzles get smoother and livelier during the past few years. Also among his fans are his patients, who like to work the doctor’s crosswords in his office to take their mind off cataract surgery and lasers.

    Dr. Haight, right, with the New York Times' Will Shortz
    Dr. Haight (right) pictured with Will Shortz (left), crossword editor for The New York Times. 

    Although he is a transplanted Californian, he has remained loyal to the Packers and Badgers back in Wisconsin, where he and his wife return every summer for a family reunion at Lake Mills. Dr. Haight admits that his grown kids have limited interest in tackling his puzzles.

    “They’re not the word nerd people like I’ve become,” he says.

    But there is still hope that his grandchildren will find pleasure in his creations, as have thousands of people around the country. If you haven’t already figured it out the question at the top, here’s the answer: word nerd.

    If you have an interesting hobby or know of a fellow senior ophthalmologist who does and would like to share it with your colleagues in Scope, contact Neeshah Azam at scope@aao.org.