Now in His 70s, It's Still Full-Speed Ahead for This Renowned Physician
After more than 45 years of operating, teaching, writing and engineering, vitreoretinal surgeon Dr. Steve Charles has earned a well-deserved rest that he'll never take.
He rarely sleeps more than two hours at a time, he doesn't take vacations, he has no hobbies, he doesn't watch sports and he hasn't seen a movie in 30 years.
Instead, a typical week for Dr. Charles looks something like this recent marathon: See 60 to 65 patients on Monday and Wednesday at his Charles Retina Institute on Kimbrough Road in Germantown; operate on 10 patients on Tuesday and 10 more on Thursday; pilot his Sabre 65 twin-engine jet to Burbank, California, in time to give a one-hour speech Thursday evening to the Los Angeles Ophthalmologic Society; get up at 5 Friday morning and fly 15 minutes across town to Orange County for lengthy product-development meetings with engineers at Alcon Laboratories, and fly back to Memphis on Sunday.
Then he sets the alarm for 4:30 a.m. so he can lift weights at a fitness center before seeing more patients Monday morning.
"I just turned 76 and the only thing that makes me mad is coming home and my mailbox has an ad for a hearing aid and one from a funeral company and another one from a retirement home," says Dr. Charles. "I just throw it all in the trash. I'm not going to retire. My retirement plan is death."
For the record, he's done pretty well so far.
Dr. Charles the ophthalmologist is also a mechanical and electrical engineer who has more than 100 patents issued or pending for instruments and surgical systems. He has performed more than 38,000 retinal surgeries in 25 countries, lectured in 51 countries and authored a textbook, Vitreous Microsurgery, now in its fifth edition in six languages.
He recently was the recipient of the 2018 Laureate Recognition Award, the highest award given by the American Academy of Ophthalmology for exceptional contributions to the advancement of eye care.
Also, Dr. Charles will be featured in a book due for release this month by best-selling author James Moore called Give Back the Light, which chronicles Moore's search to save sight in his right eye while also sharing his discovery of his doctor's lifetime accomplishments.
"I don't worry about the fame game or making money," Dr. Charles says. "I've never been the fancy doctor type with sports cars and a big house and flashy clothes like so many other doctors. That's just not me. It's not a passion. It's about a sense of responsibility. I just know if I continue to improve my skill sets by learning, then I have a chance of helping a patient in India or China or downtown Memphis."
While many successful people can point to an important mentor early in their lives, Dr. Charles, not surprisingly, can point to several.
His father was a college art history professor whose son was intrigued by his smooth, learned lecturing style. While his father served in the Navy in World War II, Dr. Charles tagged along with his maternal grandfather, a mechanical engineer who designed diesels and ran a manufacturing facility.
His paternal grandfather, who died before Dr. Charles was born, was a surgeon, as was his father's older brother who was his godfather.
"So I thought about maybe combining the careers of both grandfathers, my uncle and my dad," Dr. Charles says. "I've always wanted to be a systems designer, something I've done throughout my career, but I wanted to figure out something that had meaning. I didn't want to design something that makes cigarettes or whisky or gambling machines. So it was engineering, surgery and teaching."
As the son of a distinguished college professor, Dr. Charles also got to tag along and meet such luminaries as poet Robert Frost, architects Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright, undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau and former First Lady and human rights advocate Eleanor Roosevelt.
"It does inspire you to be around people who are incredibly accomplished," says Dr. Charles. "It's about problem solving and trying to make a difference. I work my butt off, I'm nice to everybody and I play by the rules."
A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, who grew up mostly in Miami, Dr. Charles studied mechanical and electrical engineering and taught himself optical engineering after enrolling in medical school at the University of Miami.
While there, he worked at the world-famous Bascom Palmer Eye Institute as a student, intern and resident under the wing of founder Dr. Edward W.D. Norton.
"I was very fortunate to have extraordinary people as teachers," Dr. Charles recalls. "Here I am, some dorky med student, hanging out in the lab with Dr. Norton. When I was finally leaving, I ran into him and I said 'What can I ever do to repay you?' He looked me in the eye, gave me a shove and said one word: 'Teach.' That was very cool. I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
Today, vitreoretinal surgeons the world over use many of the techniques and devices that Dr. Charles invented, and his how-to microsurgery textbook is required reading. As a result, every year he affects many thousands of patients he never sees.
"I wasn't the number one student in high school or college or medical school, but I always took the toughest classes and always did very well," he says. "I'm not a memorizer. I'm an engineer-thinking kind of guy."
When asked what accomplishment he is most proud of, he answers without hesitation.
"Being a daddy and granddaddy," says Dr. Charles. "I have three phenomenal daughters and four terrific grandchildren. My idea of maturity is real simple: it isn't about you. It's about your employees, your patients, your customers and, most importantly, about your children and your grandchildren."