Orlando Eye Specialists
ORLANDO - Impatience was a virtue for Javier Perez.
It was his first year at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine in San Juan and Perez had learned over a beer with a buddy, who was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, that if he signed up for the Health Professionals Scholarship Program he could have his medical school subsidized in exchange for an active duty commitment upon completion.
“I went to the Army recruiting station. I waited 30 minutes and no one talked to me. I said ‘Screw this!’ and left. I walked into the Navy recruiting station and in less than a minute they asked ‘How can we help you?’” Perez recalled. “They gave me the paperwork and I thought about it for a few weeks” before signing up and being commissioned an ensign whose only job for the next three years, he said, would be to finish medical school and do a few weeks of military training in the summers.
“Almost immediately” after enlisting, Perez said, “9/11 happened.” The terrorist attack that changed the world also had a lasting impact on how his career in medicine and the military would unfold.
After earning his medical doctorate in 2004 Perez was assigned to a one-year transitional internship at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. It was there that he decided to claim ophthalmology as his specialty. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. The Fallujah offensive was on and there were a lot of casualties (in Iraq). Marines would be injured in combat there, transferred to Germany and flown (to Bethesda) within 48 to 72 hours. Their injuries were horrible and when I was doing trauma I saw a lot of the doctors working with (patients who had) very severe eye injuries. That was the first telling moment about my interest in ophthalmology,” said Perez.
After a year at Bethesda, Perez was accepted into a rigorous 6-month training course to become an undersea/diving medical officer, which took him to Groton, Conn., and Panama City, Fla. “It was very competitive because it was so physical. It was the most difficult thing I had ever done. There were times I thought I was going to die,” said Perez, but when he completed the challenge in December 2005, he was medically qualifying Navy divers and elite special operations SEAL team members.
The next three years included “a wonderful assignment and experience” at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. “I was going diving every Thursday and getting paid for it. It was fantastic,” said Perez, who was released from active duty in 2008 but continued to serve as a Navy reservist while he completed his three-year ophthalmology residency at the University of Florida in Gainesville. A one-year fellowship in glaucoma took Perez to Emory University in Atlanta, but he said there was never much doubt that he would return to Florida.
While at Gainesville, he had met Lindsay Koss, a med student who was on a rotation when he was an ophthalmologic resident. She’s a “full-blown Gator” who grew up in Sarasota, earned her undergraduate and medical degrees at UF, and has just completed her residency there, Perez said. Koss will join the OB/GYN group Contemporary Women’s Care of Orlando this fall, but for now she has a higher priority: Caring for the couple’s 2-month-old twins, Lucas and Alden.
Being a new dad and running his recently opened solo practice, Orlando Eye Specialists, is a “a lot of work,” Perez said, but “I’m doing the best I can. I always wanted to be my own boss and own my own practice.”
For now, it is just he and his receptionist, Laura Baez, so he handles “everything from the start to the end of the patient encounter … and I still have to bring home work at night … but in a few months I may be able to hire a technician,” he said. Perez also works about two days a week at the Orlando VA Medical Center, where he is the go-to surgeon for glaucoma patients, he said.
Perez said his patient base is increasing for several reasons. One, he is bilingual and “there is a huge need for that in Orlando,” he said. Another is that “there is not a ton of glaucoma specialists. It’s sort of a niche market.” And luck has something to do with it, too, he said. “I just opened in May and the closest ophthalmology practice to me just closed. They had been open forever and sold their practice to a corporation that went bankrupt. So, all those patients are now looking for (an ophthalmologist) and I just happen to be in their region. …. that is helping,” said Perez, 36.
Between practicing medicine and parenthood, Perez said some of his active pastimes have suffered. “When I was in the military I used to do half-marathons, and a lot of trail running in Hawaii. It was good for my health, but it also was a good way to have time to yourself,” he said. And his wife Lindsay indulged his love of diving, he said, by becoming SCUBA certified so they could share the experience on vacations they enjoyed in Cozumel and Belize.
But these days “my main hobby is changing diapers,” he laughed.