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Thanks to Chen, patients see the light

Published on Monday, June 22, 2015

By: Ruth Cummins

Dr. C. J. Chen is an avid photographer and travel buff. 

He has a room outfitted with an elaborate stereo system where he spends time outside work listening to classical music, and he and his wife Lin have enjoyed ballroom dancing, the symphony, ballet and opera for years. They love visiting with their three children, all physicians living out of state, and six grandchildren. 

So when Chen steps down as chair of the University of Mississippi Medical Center's Department of Ophthalmology, a duty he's had the last 15 of his 36 years on the faculty, does that give him more leisure time? 


"I'm not retiring," laughs Chen, who will remain a full-time faculty member after Dr. Kimberly Crowder, associate professor of ophthalmology and director of the ophthalmology residency program, becomes chair in July. 

"His work ethic is unsurpassed," Crowder said. "He's always thinking, and always working, and he always puts the needs of the department before his own needs. That's a great aspect of a leader."

Many current and former patients owe their sight to Chen, a native of Taiwan and one of the world's premier experts in surgical management of vitreoretinal diseases, especially those related to diabetes, ocular trauma and complicated retinal detachment. Since he arrived at the Medical Center in 1979 as an assistant professor of surgery, his department has been the beneficiary of his passion for research to improve treatment and patient outcomes, and his commitment to raising the bar on standards of care.

Chen is editor and co-author of the textbook Clinical OCT Angiography Atlas
Chen is editor and co-author of the textbook Clinical OCT Angiography Atlas
He's contributed to the cutting-edge education of School of Medicine ophthalmology students in the classroom and through his editing and co-authoring of the just-released textbook Clinical OCT Angiography Atlas. It explores optical coherence tomography angiography and its use in diagnosing ocular diseases and disorders in different parts of the eye. 

And, his clinical research at UMMC includes a trial that is delving into an alternative to fluorescein angiography that can be more sophisticated and effective - a retinal scan that detects blood flow in the eye. Using a special 3-D OCT angiographic software algorithm on an existing OCT machine, he said, physicians can produce vascular images of what's going on in a patient's eyes without the need for injecting contrast media. 

"It's an international effort for this trial," Chen said, involving ophthalmology professors in Rome, Oregon, Brazil and New York. Food and Drug Administration approval of the new ophthalmic imaging technology "will come soon. It's so useful. People are so eager to hear about this new technology. That's very exciting." 

Chen also played a major role in many other clinical trials, including research on sickle cell retinopathy. "Its treatment conclusion has become the standard of care," Chen said. 

"He definitely is, first and foremost, our best clinical trial researcher in the department," Crowder said. 

Such trials are necessary in fighting what Chen terms "the war, but a very rewarding war" on retinal diseases. "We are in the hot zone of Mississippi. We have extremely difficult cases of retinal detachment related to diabetes, and conditions that often result from traumatic injuries. We see a lot of patients with age-related macular degeneration." 

The UMMC Department of Ophthalmology, which Chen has grown from five faculty members to 16, is "the last gatekeeper" for those whose conditions are dire, Chen said. "We receive a lot of referrals for extremely difficult cases, and we are the sight-savers for some with very common illnesses." 

Chen "has set a high standard for combining educational and research leadership with a very high-volume, top-quality clinical practice," said Dr. Charles O'Mara, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs. "He has had a strong impact by teaching many students and residents about treating patients with eye problems. 

"This clinical and academic productivity has gained for him, and for UMMC, a high level of respect both in the community and across the country." 

Chen and his staff are touching not just patients at UMMC, but around the state. More than a decade ago, he established outreach clinics in Meridian, Hattiesburg, Kosciusko, Natchez and Vicksburg. Specialists from UMMC travel there once or twice a month, providing extra services to supplement the local medical community. 

His department is establishing a high level of care for maladies that include cataracts, glaucoma, anterior segment eye diseases, strabismus, intraocular tumor, retinal diseases and conditions requiring plastic surgery. A data report showing those ongoing quality improvements is being compiled for submission to the IRIS (Intelligence Research in Sight) Registry of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. 

"They rate our data compared to the national standard. This is a very important step for us," Chen said. 

After graduating from medical school at Taipei Medical University in Taiwan, Chen completed post-graduate training and residencies in Taipei, then a fellowship in retinal and vitreous diseases at the University of Chicago. That was followed by his appointment as senior and chief resident in ophthalmology at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. 

He was recruited to come to UMMC because of his growing expertise in vitreoretinal surgery. "I didn't expect to stay long, but after a few years, you really get to love this place," Chen said. His colleagues at the University of Chicago asked him to return three years after his move to Jackson, but Chen said no.

"In one blink, it's been 36 years," said Chen, who has worked under five vice chancellors. "We've been so warmly accepted here." 

Just a year after joining the UMMC faculty, Chen established an annual ophthalmology update conference that continues today, providing UMMC residents and ophthalmologists statewide the latest information delivered by internationally and nationally renowned experts. Chen enjoys teaching, presenting research and sharing his clinical experiences with his colleagues, and he's delivered more than 250 national or international speeches. 

He's trained upward of 113 residents over the years, creating a resident research program in which residents must choose a mentor and execute one research project per year. Their research papers are rated for quality by the speaker, also renowned, featured at the annual Chen-created Professor Samuel B. Johnson Memorial Lecture. 

Chen has furthered the state's need for quality managed care through his founding of the Mississippi Quality Eye Care Network. He serves as president of the organization, which counts 35 state ophthalmologists as members. 

He's grateful for the opportunity handed to him immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. UMMC had purchased the building on Lakeland Drive now known as the Lakeland Medical Building. Chen's department was given the first and third floors for pediatric and adult services. "We designed it from the ground up," he said. "Very soon, we will outgrow this space." 

Chen has spent many hours in that building. "I usually come in at 6 or 6:30 and work on administrative business until 9, then see patients and perform surgeries," he said. That's often followed by administrative meetings that can stretch his day well into the evening. 

Crowder, he said, "has the department and faculty's full support, and she's been a very good residency program director. We have a very capable successor, and I'll be able to focus on writing, trials and patients. But, I'll still be very busy." 

"We are fortunate indeed that he will be continuing his research, teaching, and clinical practice here beyond his tenure as department chair," O'Mara said.

Dr. C.J. Chen and his wife Lin are seasoned travelers, visiting places internationally including the ancient Matsuyama Castle in the city of Matsuyama, Japan.
Dr. C.J. Chen and his wife Lin are seasoned travelers, visiting places internationally including the ancient Matsuyama Castle in the city of Matsuyama, Japan.
When Chen steps down as chair, he will spend a little more time with his wife, a retired ophthalmologist. There will be more opportunity for them to see their children: Dr. Alice Chen-Plotkin, a Harvard grad and neurologist and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Grace Yu, a Harvard grad, family physician and faculty member at Stanford University; and Dr. Royce Chen, a Yale grad and retinal specialist on faculty at Columbia University. 

"He used to be a golfer, but the grandchildren have substituted for that," joked Crowder.

"We'd love to travel," Chen said. "I owe some of my friends a visit, and owe some talks at institutions. Now, I can pay back that debt."