HomeNovember 2011Saving Sight

Saving Sight

In 2010 Los Angeles Magazine conducted a survey of 31,000 doctors, asking the question, “Who would you choose as your doctor?”  The only two vitreo-retinal surgeons in Orange County and the Long Beach area who were selected by their peers and designated as “super doctors of Southern California” were Dr. Jerry Sebag and Dr. Lawrence P. Chong of the VMR Institute.  In 2011 they did it again.
With a mission of bringing top-tier, university-level care to the local community in a private setting, the VMR Institute in Huntington Beach is a state-of-the-art treatment and research facility providing laser therapy and surgery of the eye’s vitreous, macula and retina.  While being considered pre-eminent authorities on the diagnosis and treatment of complex conditions of the eye such as diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, retinal detachments, macular holes, macular puckers and retinal vein occlusions, the doctors deliver care in a compassionate environment.
When taking me on a tour of the office, Dr. Sebag pointed out that the setting was a counterbalance to the process.  Because the subject of vision loss is so emotional, there is a relaxing open area to counteract anxiety, and examination rooms have two doors.  In addition, the doctors provide “as much diagnostic and therapeutic care as possible in one visit to decrease the number of visits that may be required,” Dr. Sebag explained.
“There is more pharmacotherapy than laser therapy,” he added.  When necessary, surgery can be performed at any of six local hospitals and in ambulatory surgery centers.  Often, the surgery takes 30 minutes or less and can be performed with a local anesthetic.  New kinds of surgical equipment, especially lasers, make the procedures less daunting and more effective.
The diagnostic equipment is also state-of-the-art.  One device scans the macula without drops and provides much greater detail than ever before, according to Dr. Sebag.  The VMR Institute was among the first centers in the world to use the Combined Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) – Scanning Laser Ophthalmoscopy (SLO) equipment:
In addition, the VMR Institute, which has been operating since 1986, is conducting pioneering research that is typically not done in private practice, according to Dr. Sebag.  He hopes the research will “take everyone to tomorrow,” but provide the best options in today’s care at the same time.  Dr. Sebag and Dr. Chong have served as co-investigators in many clinical research trials, and offer new treatments and surgery options unavailable at many other facilities.  The office collaborates with biotechnology firms, pharmaceutical companies, universities and government agencies to do research in such areas as stem cell research for dry macular degeneration while using new drugs to inject into the eye to dry up wet macular degeneration and using a surgical procedure to remove “floaters” that obstruct vision.
“The eye is like a camera,” Dr. Sebag explained.  The front structures are like the lens of a camera and lining the inside of the back of the eye is the film of the camera, called the retina.  The retina has many blood vessels which can be damaged by diabetes and high blood pressure.  The central portion of the retina, which is called the macula, can break down or degenerate during aging.  The space between the lens and the retina is filled with a gel called vitreous that can also be affected by aging.
Dr. Sebag, who donated a Sefer Torah to Young Israel of Irvine in memory of his father, believes that he is fulfilling the Jewish American dream and that the study of Talmud prepared him for science.  His mother is a Holocaust survivor who hid in a convent in Belgium, eventually moving to Israel.  His father was a Sephardic Jew from Morocco, who smuggled his way into Israel.  “My Ashkenazic genes got me through medical school, and my Sephardic genes helped me to enjoy it,” he quipped.
Born in Tiberias, Israel, Dr. Sebag came to the United States at the age of 3.  He attended a yeshiva in Manhattan.  “But science drew me, and I decided to go to the Bronx High School of Science,” he said.  “It was a problem for the yeshiva that I wanted to ‘go to the other side.’”
Dr. Sebag went to Columbia University for both his undergraduate and medical studies, did his internship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center/UCLA and did his ophthalmology residency and vitreo-retinal fellowship at Harvard Medical School.  Since 2003, he has been a professor of clinical ophthalmology at the Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, where Dr. Chong also teaches.
Dr. Sebag said that he can make a direct connection between his Jewish learning and his scientific learning.  “The essence of all thought is philosophy,” he explained.  “The application of philosophy in the real world is mathematics.  The application of mathematics is physics, the application of physics is chemistry and the application of chemistry is biology.  I got there and found my ‘happy place.’  The most incredible product of the biological sciences is the human body.”
He opined, “The training in deductive reasoning that was part of my Talmud study helped me to get hired by the Albert Einstein College as a computer programmer.  I did programming for research teams, which was good background for the research we do here.”
Dr. Sebag said that medicine appealed to him intellectually and that he is fortunate to be able to change people’s lives.  “I’m blessed to have a patient population that has become my new core of professors,” he said.  “You only get snippets of situations when you’re going through medical school.  That’s why you practice medicine.  You have to practice it on an ongoing basis and be dedicated to continuing to improve.”
He added, “We can never become complacent about what we can do today.  We should think about tomorrow to prevent diseases, but our real philosophy should be prevention rather than treating.”
For more information, contact the VMR Institute, 7677 Center Avenue, Suite 400, Huntington Beach, California 92647; (714) 901-7777.  A

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