Walter P. Harris Jr., MD, is an ophthalmologist practicing in Philadelphia. He completed his internship in internal medicine at Hahnemann University Hospital and his residency in ophthalmology at the Medical College of Virginia. He is certified in LASIK surgery and is a fellow of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Dr. Harris is on staff at several local hospitals, including Wills Eye Hospital and Hahnemann University Hospital.
Can you tell us a little about yourself before you went to medical school?
I'm a native of Philadelphia, born and raised here. I went to Friends Central and then to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Originally, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go into law or medicine, so I took pre-med classes but majored in political science.
When did you know you wanted to go into medicine?
I had a summer internship in the angioplasty department at the University of Pennsylvania that was really neat. I think that, along with my own experience with my eye doctor—I've been wearing glasses since the eighth grade—I decided to pursue medicine. When I went to medical school, I originally thought I was going to go into internal medicine, but after doing the rotation, I realized I didn't really like it. I then had a two-week rotation in ophthalmology, and the lightbulb went off. I said, "Oh, I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life."
What is the difference between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist?
An ophthalmologist is a Doctor of Medicine, or MD, so just like your family practice doctor or an internist or a general surgeon, ophthalmologists go to medical school. Then we do an internship. During my medical internship, I was on the floors taking care of people with strokes, heart attacks and kidney disease, like any medical intern. After internship, you go through three years of specialized training of medical conditions of the eye and surgery of the eye.
Optometrists are required to do 2 to 4 years of college and then go to optometry school, where they earn a Doctor of Optometry, or OD. In the state of Pennsylvania, optometrists are allowed to evaluate patients for disease and do routine eye exams, and they can medically treat eye disease, but they cannot do surgery.
We have optometrists at Drexel Eye Physicians, and they work in conjunction with us doing routine and comprehensive exams for people, and they fit people for contact lenses. If someone has an eye condition that requires medical and/or surgical treatment, they are referred to an ophthalmologist.
What do you specialize in treating?
I'm an anterior segment ophthalmologist, which means I focus on issues of the front part of the eye. Think of the eye like an old-fashioned camera with a front window, a lens inside of it and film in the back: the front part of the eye sort of focuses an image on the film, which is the retina. The retina takes a picture and sends it to your brain.
The bulk of what I do is cataract surgery. With cataracts, the lens of your eye gets cloudy. I remove the cloudy lens and replace it with an artificial lens. You can get fancy with that and do what's called refractive cataract surgery, where not only are you improving someone's vision but you are using it as an opportunity to get them out of glasses by putting in a multi-focal lens or correcting for their astigmatism. I have patients who get cataracts and have worn glasses all their lives, but now I've taken their cataracts out, they don't have to wear glasses, and they see well.
Additionally, I do refractive surgery for people in their 20s, 30s and sometimes 40s, who wear glasses and want to get out of glasses. I do Lasik or PRK, which are laser procedures where you change the shape of that front window of the eye, which is called the cornea. Flattening it or steepening it will change the focusing power of the eye and allow people who are in glasses to not have to wear glasses.
I also see a fair number of patients who have glaucoma, which is a condition of increased pressure within the eye. For example, if the air pressure in your tires is too high, it damages the tread. Likewise, if your eye pressure is too high, it damages the nerve that goes between the eye and the brain, which is the optic nerve, and causes you to lose vision over time. Glaucoma can be treated medically, with lasers or surgical procedures.
Those are basically the things that I specialize in. We do have doctors at Drexel Eye Physicians who specialize in the back part of the eye, or the retina. For people who have diseases in the back of the eye, we refer them to these retinal specialists.
Who is at risk for developing cataracts?
Mainly cataracts are a disease of aging. I tell patients, "It's Mother Nature and Father Time." The older you get, the more likely it is for your lens to cloud. Ultraviolet light does make cataracts worse, so if someone has an early cataract, I tell them to get a good pair of ultraviolet sunglasses to try to reduce their exposure. There are also diseases that can cause cataract formation, such as diabetes and kidney disease, and patients who are on steroids may also develop cataracts. Further, trauma can cause cataract formation. People who have had radiation treatment for cancer on their face may develop cataracts as a side effect of the radiation. It's also possible to be born with cataracts and need to have them addressed as an infant.
You recently joined Drexel Eye Physicians from a private practice. How has the transition been?
I've been in private practice at Rittenhouse Eye Associates for 30 years, but I've always maintained an affiliation with Hahnemann University Hospital, as well as Wills Eye Hospital. I've been involved in the teaching program at both places -- lecturing, teaching graduate surgery and proctoring their cases -- which is something I really enjoy. I feel like it is a chance to give back because someone taught me how to do surgery and now I can pay that forward.
I feel like at this point in my life, it's nice to start a new chapter and have more of an academic practice instead of just pure clinical. Of course, it's been an adjustment. For example, I'm not my own boss anymore, and there's a big administrative component to it that I'm getting used to. Before, if I looked at my email twice a week that was pretty good, but now I have to look at my email every hour. However, it's a nice change and a nice way to do the last part of my career.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of work?
It's been a while since I've painted, but I'm hoping that I'll have time to do that at some point. I also bike a fair amount, and there are a lot of great trails around here. I'm also involved with my church, which is one of the things that roots me in Philadelphia. I grew up attending St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. It's the oldest African Episcopal Church in the country and was founded by a former slave. The church was formed after free African Americans in Philadelphia had been told they had to sit in a certain area at a predominantly white Episcopal church downtown. Instead of staying there, they walked out in mass and founded their own church.
You're a native Philadelphian. How do you like living and working here?
I'm a staunch Philadelphian. I think it's a very livable city. It's like the biggest, small town in the country, though the downtown is more and more developed all the time. Philadelphia has a lot of really distinct neighborhoods and areas. I practice in the Hamilton Street office of Drexel Eye Physicians, which had been the location of my private practice. In the ten years I've been here, the area has really changed. It's become really vibrant with a lot of restaurants.
I also like that there's a lot to do in the city. I'm a big art buff and literally across the street from my office is the Barnes Foundation, which holds one of the best impressionist collections in the world.
Further, I love the people. My patients are from all walks of life, from people who are on food stamps to Fortune 500 CEOs. Ophthalmology is a great field to be in because people take their vision seriously. If you ask most people if they could only keep one of their five senses, most people would say they'd keep sight. Patients are usually grateful for what you can do to preserve, restore or improve their vision.