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  • One to One: David W. Parke, MD

    David W. Parke, MD

    He chose medicine over dentistry so he wouldn’t have to put his fingers in people’s mouths and wound up in ophthalmology only through a mentor he never would have met if things had gone as planned. In an interview at the Joint Meeting in San Francisco, the father of the Academy’s CEO and EVP discusses the missteps, hard choices and disappointments that have nonetheless made for a very satisfying career.

    The mandatory test that would launch David W. Parke, MD, into a decades-long career in ophthalmology gave him only two career-path choices: A) Doctor or B) Dentist. Though, as a World War II Army recruit, he was getting used to facing constrained options, Parke was disconcerted by the choice — presented on a test he was taking under superiors’ orders. But when he flagged down an officer monitoring the medical aptitude exam and learned that choices C through E were non-existent, he reluctantly made the best of it. “I couldn’t imagine putting my fingers in the mouths of people,” Dr. Parke says, “so I checked off physician — not realizing where physicians might be putting their fingers.”

    Both the story and that equanimity in the face of hard choices and things outside one’s control are characteristic of Dr. Parke’s career — a fact the more striking for his having been largely shunted into medicine.

    Dr. Parke grew up during that hard time to which our own economic woes are increasingly compared: the Great Depression. Although his father was an optometrist, he apparently felt little inclination toward eye care himself and was more interested in the humanities, English and math. Then the war began, and he left college to volunteer for the Army.

    After initially being sent to North Carolina State, based on an aptitude test that showed abilities suited to civil engineering, he was notified by his commanding officer one day that he was being sent to take the test that would set the course for his career. Based on the results, he and 56 others were sent off to an intensive, nine-month premed course at the University of Kentucky. All but one passed the final exam, and each of the group was assigned to specific medical schools.

    For Dr. Parke, though, there was a time lag before the medical school at Ohio State University could take him, so he spent the intervening 14 months in an Army general hospital’s acute care ward, ultimately serving as a ward sergeant (a kind of uncertified nurse). “I learned an awful lot about patient care and patient interaction,” Dr. Parke says. “I probably did things I had no right doing at that point, but it was a great experience.”

    If his time there was largely positive, however, the delay in proceeding to medical school saw World War II reaching its conclusion, bringing with it an end to the Army program that had taken Dr. Parke this far. Six months into his studies in Ohio, he received an offer to be discharged and continue medical school on his own, or to return to the Army medical corps. Going on with it would ultimately mean footing more of the bill for studies than he’d initially envisioned, but by that time, “I was hooked,” Dr. Parke says. “I loved medicine. Actually, it was my experience at the general hospital that made me love it — I loved taking care of people.”

    And, perhaps mostly importantly, he’d learned “not to be afraid of blood,” he says with another of those laughs that must draw listeners across the room to come hear his story.

    Dr. Parke a few years after medical school.
    Dr. Parke a few years after medical school.

    He must have also by then overcome any fear of crowded quarters, for during medical school Dr. Parke and his new bride bought a house together with an Army roommate (and best friend for many years) and his wife, renting rooms to other students. Home economies weren’t much easier during his residency in internal medicine: he made only $9 a month (about $80 to $100 today) and got two meals a day, covering all other expenses himself. Things improved during his second residency — in ophthalmology — but with Baltimore rent costing $95 a month in those days, even the vastly increased income of $127 a month (about $1,000 today) he earned as a resident at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins didn’t go far.

    He ended up in that second residency through a series of fortuitous circumstances, not all of which looked propitious in the beginning. Dr. Parke graduated from Ohio State ranking high in his class, a standing that should have augured well for his application for an internship at a hospital in the East. But in those days, the hospital of his choice hadn’t accepted an applicant from west of the Appalachians, and it made no exception in his case.

    “When I didn’t get my first choice of internship,” Dr. Parke says, “I was crushed. I really was. But now I’m so grateful, because if I’d gotten it, I never would have become an ophthalmologist.”

    When the dean of the medical school at Ohio State learned why Dr. Parke’s application had been denied, he was so enraged by the hospital’s decision that he made space for Dr. Parke to continue in a residency at Ohio State University Hospital. The residency was in internal medicine, but it would set the man who’d not wanted to put his fingers in people’s mouths on a path of taking care of their eyes.

    While in the program, Dr. Parke encountered an ophthalmologist “who was very interested in systemic ophthalmology.”

    “He frequently was asked to consult on patients who had systemic disease that affected the eyes,” Dr. Parke recalls, “and he was so excited every time he saw something interesting that, if I were around, he would call me to come and look. …His enthusiasm was so infectious.”

    Dr. Parke credits this mentor, who also invited him to come watch some surgeries, with his decision to go into ophthalmology. “It seemed to me ophthalmology offered the best of both worlds,” he says: medicine “and also an opportunity to use my hands and do some surgery.”

    Two years into his first residency, Dr. Parke applied for a second, in ophthalmology, at Columbia University in New York. At that time, people were being admitted every three months, but for some reason, Dr. Parke was faced with a six- or nine-month delay. But this time, unlike his previous chance in the Army to “sit tight,” he couldn’t wait. He called the director of the program at Columbia and asked if there were any way to start sooner.

    It turned out that there wasn’t, at least at Columbia, but the following day the director called back to report that Wilmer had suddenly gotten a vacancy. Wilmer was already a top choice for ophthalmology. In fact, it was so well thought-of and so hard to get into that “I never even applied,” Dr. Parke says. Because of another student’s last-minute decision to drop out, however, all it took was an abruptly scheduled interview for Dr. Parke to be admitted to the program.

    But if choosing not to wait on Columbia almost immediately worked out for the best, there were other choices in his new career in ophthalmology that proved more difficult. After completing his time at Wilmer, Dr. Parke had a chance to stay on and work with M. Elliott Randolph, MD, and join the school’s faculty. Because both he and his wife had aging parents, however, Dr. Parke turned the offer down and moved his family home to Connecticut. “We felt a duty, in a way, to be close to help them,” he says.

    Two years later, however, he faced a far more difficult decision when Edward Norton, MD, who was then starting the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, invited him to move to Florida to help with the new operation. “I thought a great deal of Ed Norton,” Dr. Parke says. But by then he had three children (including the boy who grew up to be the Academy’s CEO and EVP David W. Parke II, MD), a new office and “all the expenses and all the debts I owed for medical school.” As tempting as Dr. Norton’s offer was, “to give all that up and go into a new position in Florida, I really couldn’t afford it.”

    So he stayed there in Connecticut, in the community he and his wife were from and, with the resolve that’s defined him from that difficult choice on the aptitude test to the present, made the best of it. He admits the foregone opportunity haunted him, but says “I went on to be very happy with the rest of my life.”

    This was probably a combination of outlook and opportunity. “When I started practice, there were very few subspecialists,” Dr. Parke says. “So having had a really good background at Wilmer, I did my own oculoplastic surgery, I did my own retinal detachment surgery — such as it was done at the time — I did my own strabismus surgery. … Those were things I really enjoyed doing.”

    He went on to become the chief of the medical staff at his hospital, a position he held for 12 years, and enjoyed numerous opportunities to do clinical research and pioneer use of innovative technologies — all this, he stresses, for those who might see not subspecializing as limiting — as a comprehensive ophthalmologist. Dr. Parke was the first in Connecticut to insert an intra-ocular implant (following studies abroad with the Dutch ophthalmologist Jan Wurst, MD) and got his hospital to buy a Xenom-Arc photo-coagulator (cutting-edge equipment at the time), enabling him to become one of the first in the state to use photocoagulation for diabetic retinopathy.

    Today Dr. Parke oversees residents in his work with low-vision patients and is the editor of Scope, the Academy’s quarterly newsletter for senior ophthalmologists. Until recently he was also teaching medical students at Yale (mostly first- and second-years), including a freshman course on how to use the ophthalmoscope.

    “We make decisions in life,” he says. “Sometimes they’re not what we think are the best decisions but you find out afterward that you’ve been blessed because you made that decision, because you’ve made the best of it. I have no regrets.”

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    About the author: Christi A. Foist is the managing editor for YO Info and the Web and Member Communications Editor for the Academy’s Web site.