A Vision for the future
Palm Beach ophthalmologist Mark Michels, MD ’85, sets his sights on shaping the next generation of physicians
It happened in the blink of an eye.
As a student in UF’s Medical Honors Program in the early 1980s, Mark Michels was looking for a research project to focus on when he walked across the hall to the lab of the late William Woodson Dawson, MS, PhD, an electrophysiologist and longtime faculty member in the UF College of Medicine department of ophthalmology. Before he knew it, he became captivated with the visual system and the thought of helping to restore people’s vision.
“I found myself drifting back to that lab after rotations,” Michels says. “I realized I liked ophthalmology more than all the other possibilities. The retina is a beautiful thing. It’s a reddish orange color. It looks cool under the microscope, the pathology behind it is neat and the procedures are challenging.”
Although nearly 35 years have passed since Michels roamed the halls of UF as a medical student and almost 300 miles now separate him from Gainesville, the South Florida ophthalmologist maintains strong ties with his alma mater through student mentoring and philanthropy, including scholarship support. As the new president of the UF Medical Alumni Board of Directors, Michels is also setting his sights on helping to steer the college — and the next generation of health care providers — into the future.
Shedding light on retinal diseases
Since 1999, Michels has poured his passion for ophthal-mology into caring for patients at his practice, Retina Care Specialists, which has expanded to include offices in Palm Beach Gardens, Stuart and Port St. Lucie. He has also continued to fuel his interest in leading-edge research — a love he discovered in a corner of Dawson’s UF lab and carried to his residency at Emory University School of Medicine — through the scientific arm of his business, Retina Care Research Institute of Florida Inc.
There, his 30-member team works on clinical trials that aim to change the way physicians treat retinal diseases. In 2006, his practice was part of the Lucentis Anchor trial, a national project that resulted in a new treatment for age-related macular degeneration. The paper Michels co-authored about it was published in The New England Journal of Medicine and was dubbed by Science magazine as the sixth most important article in scientific literature that year.
“Now everyone uses Lucentis or an equivalent drug to treat the three leading causes of blindness,” he says. “But the burden is that it needs to be frequently injected into the eye.”
This led Michels and his team to their most recent project: a clinical trial to test a device that, once implanted into the eye, slowly releases the medicine and only needs to be refilled every six to 12 months. If successful, this device would reduce the burden for patients with wet macular degeneration, who currently need injections on a monthly or bimonthly basis.
For Michels, who has been a principal investigator on over 30 national trials, the driving force is a deep-seated curiosity and a longing to impact lives. If eyes are the windows to the soul, Michels intends to help keep that window open for his patients as long as possible.
“The fun part about research is you never quite know where it will take you,” Michels says. “You ask one question, and that leads you to a bunch of new questions.”
All eyes on the next generation
For Michels, an important component of being a physician is advocating for patients and educating the public and its representatives on health care needs. As the legislative co-chair of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology and a councilor to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, he and his colleagues bring residents to Washington, D.C., so they can learn firsthand how to communicate with legislators about vital topics facing patients. Although residents travel from various medical schools across the state for these trips, in true Gator fashion, Michels typically requests to mentor housestaff from UF.
“It’s an awesome responsibility to take care of people when they are at their most vulnerable,” Michels says. “I tell trainees that it’s critical to advocate for patients and to gain and maintain their trust. It’s important for them to always do the right thing, especially when nobody is looking.”
In addition to showing residents the ropes, Michels meets with incoming medical students from South Florida each summer before they make their way to Gainesville. As Legacy Challenge members, he and his wife, Lyn, have also made a gift to provide scholarships to two medical students.
“For me, staying connected to UF is about the privilege of being able to pay it forward,” he says. “That’s an important part of the culture of the college, and it’s refreshing to see that persist in a world that’s not gentle and kind.
“Each time I visit Gainesville, I come home with 10 times more energy than when I left,” Michels says. “Many people before me provided financially, spiritually and academically, so it’s important for me to give back in that way and hope the next person will do the same.”