JoAnn Giaconi, MD, thought she would follow in the footsteps of her cardiologist father or her pulmonologist grandfather. But life (and medical school) can take unexpected turns. During third-year rotations, she discovered her love of surgery — eye surgery, in particular. "I became fascinated by how the eye works, with all its delicate and intricate parts," she says.
Dr. Giaconi now practices ophthalmology at both the UCLA Stein Eye Institute and the Veterans Hospital (VA) Eye Clinic. She also teaches ophthalmology to medical students at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
What does an ophthalmologist do?
An ophthalmologist helps preserve and improve vision in patients by examining the eyes to diagnose and treat problems. Some ophthalmologists, like Dr. Giaconi, specialize in eye surgery to correct and improve eye problems. "I love helping patients by fixing things with my own hands," she says.
Vision plays such an important role in so many activities that make life interesting and satisfying, such as "reading, watching a movie, driving a car or seeing the faces of friends and family," explains Dr. Giaconi. "Vision is such an amazing thing to preserve."
While most of her patients are over the age of 60, when the risk of glaucoma, cataracts and other vision problems increases, Dr. Giaconi has developed a special interest in childhood glaucoma. A relatively rare condition in childhood, glaucoma can occur as a result of illness or injury. There is no cure for glaucoma, but it can be controlled with vigilance. Successful treatment, she says, often requires "a lifelong relationship with an ophthalmologist." She enjoys establishing these relationships with patients of all ages. In fact, one of her young patients recently was thrilled to discover that her grade-school teacher was also one of Dr. Giaconi's patients.
Dr. Giaconi says she splits her time between seeing patients and teaching medical students in the classroom and in clinic. Although it makes for some hectic days, she believes that combining patient care with teaching medical students has benefits. She often "thinks out loud" during an eye exam to give students and patients a better understanding of the clinical process and different diseases of the eye.
Teaching future ophthalmologists
Dr. Giaconi helped develop the ophthalmology curriculum at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She describes the curriculum as "weaving like a thread" through the medical school experience.
The curriculum starts in the second year with "lectures describing how the eye and vision are affected by other diseases," she says. For example, they cover the diseases of the eye a cardiologist might encounter, such as diabetic retinopathy or vein and artery occlusions. They also teach students how to examine the eye and visual system, concentrating on problems often seen by family practice doctors or internists. In addition, every second-year student gets a chance to practice on real patients under the guidance of a trained physician. In their third year, students can choose to do a two-week rotation in the eye clinics; more focused instruction and advising on ophthalmology is available during their fourth year.
While she didn't set out to be an ophthalmologist, Dr. Giaconi doesn't hesitate when asked if she would make the same choice again. "Definitely!" she says. "There are so many options once you finish training, from research to industry to clinical care, surgery and teaching. The ultimate goal is always to improve a patient's life by improving or preserving their vision."
By Emily Paulsen