MAITLAND - When Jerry Shuster left Miami and enrolled at the University of Florida in Gainesville, engineering was foremost on his mind. But within a year, he not only had decided to become a physician, he was enrolled in medical school.
"I had been a good student in high school, but not exceptional," said Shuster. "Then I met Bob Safian, Steve Lottenberg and Todd Snyder. Bob was one of the smartest guys I have ever known; Steve, one of the hardest workers; and Todd, one of the nicest and most generous people I have ever met," Shuster recalled. "We all became good friends and spent a lot of time together. I learned how to study from Bob and Steve," who were pre-med students, said Shuster. Todd was studying architecture, but he and Shuster were freshman talent on the UF tennis team.
"I was in my sophomore year and, up to that point, I spent most of my time studying, foregoing many of the things that makes college fun. I applied to medical school though an early admission medical program called Junior Honors," said Shuster. The program only accepted 15 students per year.
"I was interviewed by the Chairman of Neurology. He asked only a few questions, the last of which was 'Why do you want to be a doctor?' I replied and he stopped. He gave me some pointers about what kinds of answers he generally is looking for during an interview and told me he was giving me this advice in the hope I would be accepted to the program and that I would not have to interview again," Shuster said.
Shuster made the cut, which allowed him to complete his undergraduate degree while also attending medical school.
"I did get in, but that did not mean no more interviews. There have been others -- many others. But, those kind words validated all of the hard work that l had been doing up to that point and encouraged me to continue in the years ahead," he said. Being accepted into the program "takes a lot of pressure off," said Shuster. Most undergrads "are working hard and the primary objective is to get into medical school. This type of program takes away that pressure."
After earning his medical degree in 1978, Shuster did his internship in internal medicine at UF's premiere teaching hospital, Shands. Shuster said he met many role models along the way, but the one who influenced him the most to pursue ophthalmology as a specialty, and glaucoma as a subspecialty, was Dan Welch, MD, whom he described as "a real rock star. ... It really clicked for me."
Shuster stayed at Shands for his residency, and that is where he met neuro-ophthalmologist Lyn Sedwick, whom he married in 1982 before they both headed to St. Louis for fellowships at Washington University School of Medicine. In 1983 they returned to Florida and settled in Orlando, "glad to leave the St. Louis weather behind us," he said.
Sedwick opened a private practice in Orlando and Shuster went to work for Tully Patrowicz, MD, in Mount Dora, but soon left to accept a teaching position at UF. That, too, was short-lived, but Shuster still regards it as a rewarding experience. "If I could not be a physician, I would be happy to be in education," he said.
In 1984 Shuster hung his shingle with his wife and spent the next 23 years in private practice treating mostly glaucoma patients. "Our goals were in the same direction, and obviously our philosophies line up. Patient care was always number one," he said. And, Shuster said, he valued having a combined professional and life partner. "Patients don't always do well, and that's tough. It's so easy to take that home with you. Lyn's always been so understanding. On those nights when you are worried about a patient, it's good to have a sounding board who is really knowledgeable," he said.
Shuster had earned an MBA at Rollins College in 2005, and in 2007 he left private practice and put it to use as a healthcare consultant. "Initially, it was a lot of fun. As a team, we traveled around the country, working to make hospitals safer and more efficient. However, over time, the constant travel and time away from the family wore me down and I decided to come back to medical practice," he said.
In 2012, Shuster joined Eye Physicians of Central Florida a large multi-specialty group in Maitland, where he keeps clinic hours four days a week and performs surgeries one day a week at Florida Hospital in downtown Orlando. The understated 62-year-old said he has no plans to retire. "I like getting up every day with a purpose in mind. Until I feel like I physically can't do what I'm doing, I'm certainly not entertaining any ideas of retirement," he said. Besides, I still have one on the payroll," he joked, referring to 26-year-old son Eric, a graduate student at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Shuster and Sedwick also have a daughter Jill, 23, who lives in North Carolina.
Shuster loves to fish. "I've really enjoyed it as a way to get away from the pressures of the practice. It's certainly nice to have some distractions," said Shuster, who also plays tennis several times a week. But the role fishing has played in his family life is even more special. "I've been fishing with Eric since he was 4. It became a real connection for us," said Shuster, seizing the occasion to reminisce about the 48-inch-redfish his son caught in a junior tournament when he was just 8 years old.
About five years ago, Shuster said, he took another step in in his angling adventures. "Across from Lyn's office is a grassy field and there were about eight guys out there practicing their fly-casting strokes. I wandered over and struck up a conversation. They were part of a club called the Backcountry Fly Fishing Association. They invited me to join," he said. Today, he is on the board of directors of the organization, which promotes fly fishing for beginners as well as seasoned anglers.
A photo of a 35-inch snook caught fly fishing on Sanibel Island sits on his office desk. It's another symbol, like his early entry into medical school, that Shuster is a quick study.