U-M Kellogg Eye Institute director who led growth plans to relinquish role
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
In February, Lichter plans to relinquish his role as chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology and director of the Kellogg Eye Center.
Paul Lee, a former Duke University ophthalmologist who earned his medical degree from U-M in 1986 under Lichter’s tutelage, will become the department chairman and the second director of the Kellogg Eye Center.
“I could not be happier,” Lichter said in an interview from office overlooking the Huron River from the 8-story, $132 million Kellogg facility that opened in March 2010. “It’s very unusual for someone to have a protege succeeding them in an institution like ours.”
The university’s eye care research and clinical operations have grown substantially over the last few decades under Lichter’s leadership.
U-M has 85 ophthalmology faculty members and 350 employees, up from eight faculty members and just a few staff members when Lichter joined in 1978.
The ophthalmology department, through the Kellogg Eye Center, treated 140,100 patients in 2011, up from 36,852 in 1985, the most recent year in which statistics are available. And the institute conducted 5,783 surgeries in 2011, up from 1,825 in 1985.
Eye care was not a major priority for the university when Lichter joined. But over time, the university began to recognize an opportunity.
Lichter distinctly recalls traveling to Kalamazoo in 1981 with Harold Shapiro, the 10th president of the University of Michigan, to meet executives from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. They were seeking funds to construct a new facility dedicated exclusively to eye care and research.
It was a crucial meeting because the university — which had just formed its endowment that year — did not want to spend its own resources on the construction project.
“The Kellogg Foundation typically does not give to building projects,” Lichter said. “They give to programmatic support.”
But the Kellogg Foundation felt a unique connection to the U-M Department of Ophthalmology. W.K. Kellogg himself had been treated for glaucoma by former U-M physician F. Bruce Fralick before he died in 1951.
After the meeting with Lichter and Shapiro, the Kellogg Foundation made an exception to its usual funding strategy and wrote a check for $4 million. Four years later, the university opened the first Kellogg Eye Center on Wall Street in Ann Arbor.
It was, to be sure, a seminal moment for the university’s Department of Ophthalmology. It allowed the university to construct the first Kellogg Eye Center building, which helped attract faculty and patients.
Patient growth surged in the following years, and Lichter realized by the late 1990s that a new facility would be needed.
In March 2010, the university finished construction on the 230,000-square-foot research and clinical tower that replaced the old Kellogg facility. The new building has seven eye care clinics with new suites to house refractive and cosmetic surgery, six new spacious operating rooms, new labs to house a diabetes research unit and a 46 percent increase in exam rooms.
The university dedicated $30 million from a $44 million gift from Virginia couple Delores S. and William K. Brehm to help pay for the new project.
Lichter steered the designed and development of both Kellogg facilities, which have boosted the university’s reputation for world-class eye care. But he credits faculty and staff for making the institute successful.
“The facility helps you get the people, and the people make the program,” he said. “The facility doesn’t deliver anything, but it does provide a nice place for people to get work and get their job done.”
Other faculty members credit Lichter’s role in championing the new facility for their decision to come here.
“Dr. Lichter showed us he was building something uniquely different,” said Raymond S. Douglas, one of two physicians and scientists whom Lichter recruited from the University of California at Los Angeles, in a statement. “He showed us his commitment to establishing a new treatment center and his belief that our research findings could be translated to benefit patients.”
As the Kellogg Eye Center expanded its staff and attracted more patients, technology was changing dramatically, too.
Since he started his career, Lichter said major advancements in eye care include: improvements in cataract surgery; the introduction of laser technology; the influence of genetics in clinical diagnostics; advancements in management of macular degeneration; a revolution in medical imaging; and eye injection technology.
“The biggest evolution that impacts the most people is the evolution in cataract surgery because it’s a very common problem, a very common operation, and it’s gone from an operation where patients stay in the hospital for five days to an operation that’s done as an outpatient," Lichter said.
Although Lichter is stepping down as director of the Kellogg Eye Center, he’ll continue to work full-time.
He said one of the things he’s most proud of is the expansion of the university’s eye care research capabilities. To honor his contributions, U-M formed the Paul R. Lichter Research Discovery Fund with a goal of raising $3 million to raise funds for various research initiatives.
“The research program was nascent, really” in 1978, Lichter said. Now “it’s robust, it’s productive, it has produced and will continue to produce very importance discoveries. So going forward, leaving a legacy of this kind makes me very proud and makes me know that all this work will not have been for naught.”