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Young Physician Profile: Robin Kuriakose MD in Ophthalmology

Dr. Robin Kuriakose is a physician resident completing his surgical residency in Ophthalmology at Loma Linda University Health in Southern California. Prior to this, he attended a combined BS/MD program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He is passionate about mentorship and technology and has published a book to help students navigate their journey through medicine. Robin will be pursuing a Cornea and Refractive Surgery fellowship at Northwestern University in Chicago.

When did you decide to pursue becoming a physician?

I had early exposure to medicine growing up and thus always had a predilection toward activities that overlapped with the field of medicine. Through my interest in science paired with the privilege to volunteer in a hospital, it was evident early on that the prospects of a field in medicine were unparalleled to any other career for me. Volunteering and shadowing showed me firsthand the impact a physician could have on a patient, a family member, or an entire health system. As a physician, you are fighting for something inextricably coveted by those that are sick: time and health. You are there for one’s most vulnerable moments and are guiding them through them. Additionally, I had a natural interest in science and research. There is nothing more fascinating and intelligently designed than the human body. These early experiences made it obvious to me that no other career would be as rewarding for me.

Did you have any healthcare role models growing up? How did this individual impact your pursuit of/passion for healthcare? 

My father was a respiratory therapist and my mother was an emergency room nurse. My aunt and uncle were physicians; the former an internist and the latter a cardiologist. Having surrounded myself with the stories of how they each had impacted others’ lives was a petri dish for my passion to pursue healthcare. In a sense, healthcare was really all I knew growing up and there was always an emphasis on service and education.

What did your path to becoming a healthcare professional look like?

Since I knew I wanted to become a physician early on, I pursued a direct BS/MD program out of high school. This program granted me guaranteed admission into medical school, contingent upon meeting a few standard prerequisites during my undergraduate years. It also gave me the freedom to not only enjoy my undergraduate experience but also allowed me to broaden my interests without the undue stress of having to study for the MCAT and apply for medical school. From ballroom dancing to earn a business minor, I was able to have a well-rounded college experience. During medical school, I focused heavily on learning as much as I could while balancing some service-oriented healthcare such as volunteering at a high blood pressure clinic. Before I knew it, it was time to select a medical specialty.  

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What is Ophthalmology and why did you choose it as a specialty?

Until the end of my second year of medical school, I really did not know what an ophthalmologist did. As someone who wore glasses his whole life, I knew about the field of Optometry. But what was Ophthalmology? An ophthalmologist is a physician that specializes in preventing, diagnosing, and treating all diseases of the eyes through medical or surgical interventions. The big difference between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist is that ophthalmologists do eye surgery.

I was introduced to the field during an Ophthalmology interest group meeting, during which I instantly knew that this was what I wanted to pursue. The field checked off all of the things I knew I wanted in a career, and be warned, the list is fairly long:

  1. To work both in an operating room and outpatient clinic (not the hospital!)
  2. to perform fine, delicate surgeries (while seated!) with excellent life-changing outcomes
  3. an excellent quality of life
  4. to be surrounded by incredible, avant-garde technology
  5. to be the “expert” in a specific field within medicine
  6. and the ability to make meaningful contributions abroad.

The latter was one of the biggest pushes for me to pursue Ophthalmology. Cataracts are the number one cause of blindness worldwide. I learned that ophthalmologists could remove cataracts in a quick surgery, not only restoring a patient’s sight but in turn granting them their life back. I knew if I could help in this way to those in underserved areas across the world suffering from reversible blindness, I have done my part.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to match Ophthalmology?

First, make sure it is something you are passionate about. How? Shadow. The caveat? As a medical student shadowing, it can be very difficult to enjoy your time on the rotation because the exams are difficult, the language is foreign, and the material is advanced. Ophthalmology has one of the steepest learning curves, as most don’t spend more than one day in medical school learning about the visual system. Next, find a mentor with who you can do research. The research will not only teach you more about the field but will also convey to future residency programs your interest. Finally, do well on all your exams (easy to say, but do the best you can!). As ophthalmology is one of the most competitive specialties, every ounce you can put into your application will be worth it. If you are lacking in one area, don’t let that dismay you. Work harder in other areas.

What does your typical day look like?

There is a lot of variability with the style of medicine you can practice within ophthalmology. You can work in private practice, an academic center, or a hybrid.  I will speak from the perspective of a senior ophthalmology resident at an academic center. As a senior resident, my day looks slightly different from that of my juniors and slightly different from that of my attendings. Generally, we are in the operating room once a week (in some private practices you may be in the OR 2-4 days a week). The rest of the days are filled with clinic where we do examinations, injections, procedures, and lasers. I definitely enjoy it when I am doing hands-on work.

Throughout the day, we take calls from the emergency room for those that are coming in with acute eye conditions (you won’t believe how often these come in!). We transfer these patients to our clinic to evaluate them and depending on the issue, may even need to take them to the operating room.

After clinic hours, a resident is on call covering several hospitals to evaluate anyone who the emergency room doctors request a consultation. Again, I didn’t realize how many eye problems come into the emergency room. This can keep us fairly busy at night. As a senior resident, I mainly go in for surgical cases overnight or to provide backup for my junior residents if they have questions or are overwhelmed with calls. As an attending, the call becomes much lighter as most patients can usually be seen in your clinic the next day.

What is one thing you discovered during residency that you didn’t know before?

I love operating. In medical school, I knew I liked to work with my hands but I didn’t realize how much I would love it. I really enjoy my time in the operating room, learning how to do very intricate microsurgery. I enjoy learning from all of my attendings on nuances to surgery. Most of all, I love the day after surgery when I can see the smiles on my patient’s faces when they have their vision restored. To touch a life in that way is the most rewarding feeling out there.

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