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, particularly eye surgery. "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 at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA (DGSOM).
An ophthalmologist helps preserve and improve patients’ vision 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 an important role in 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."
Dr. Giaconi treats many patients over 60, an age when the risk of glaucoma, cataracts and other vision problems increases. She also has a special interest in childhood glaucoma, a relatively rare condition that can occur after 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 lasting relationships with patients of all ages. Recently, one of Dr. Giaconi ’s young patients was thrilled to discover her very own eye doctor also treated her much older grade-school teacher.
Dr. Giaconi says she splits her time between seeing patients and teaching medical students in the classroom and in the clinic. Although it makes for some hectic days, she believes that combining patient care with teaching 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.
Dr. Giaconi helped develop the ophthalmology curriculum at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She says curriculum "weaves 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. Then students learn how to examine the eye and visual system from the broad view of a family practice doctor or internist and also from a cardiologist's perspective, emphasizing conditions such as diabetic retinopathy or vein and artery occlusions. Every second-year student gets a chance to practice on real patients under the guidance of a trained physician.
In their third years, students can choose to do a two-week rotation in the eye clinics. The fourth year includes highly focused instruction and advising on ophthalmology.
While she didn't set out to be an ophthalmologist, Dr. Giaconi know she would make the same choice again. "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," she says.
By Emily Paulsen