Cape Cod’s first ophthalmologist calling it quits after 60 years
In December, a local pillar of eye care will close his Hyannis ophthalmology office after six decades of practice on Cape Cod.
Eugene C. Ciccarelli, MD will retire a few months after his 90th birthday.
“It’s kind of sad. He’s been the foundation of ophthalmology on the Cape for decades,” said Robert A. Lytle, MD, a fellow ophthalmologist with offices in Hyannis and Falmouth. “If you have a difficult or interesting patient, you can go to him and he can pull up a reference on his phone – he’ll have the latest literature reference for you.”
“He was a very skilled surgeon,” he added. “He’s amazing.”
Dr. Lytle marveled at his older colleague’s abilities despite being 90, saying “how exquisitely sharp and astute he remains to this day. “
Eugenia Levins, one of Dr. Ciccarelli’s two secretaries, called him “a true gentleman and an excellent, excellent doctor."
Age was not one of the two reasons Dr. Ciccarelli named as factors in deciding to retire. First was the desire of Levins and her fellow office staff member, Debra Staples, to retire after working for the doctor for 37 and 36 years, respectively.
“We’re in our 60s,” Levins said. “We want to travel, spend time with our grandchildren.”
Dr. Ciccarelli said the prospect of training new staff was daunting, and he asked himself, “Could I possibly go on without them?”
The need to convert his medical records to digital was the other reason he decided to retire. State law mandates doctors be proficient in electronic record keeping, and Cape Cod Healthcare uses an online system that allows information to be shared among health professionals and patients. Dr. Ciccarelli said he does a lot of drawing of patient retinas, as well as taking photos, as part of his records, and moving to an electronic version might require hiring a technician.
Early Life and Career
Dr. Ciccarelli was born in New York City, where his father, a child psychiatrist, worked.
“My mother hated it there, so we soon moved to Scarsdale (NY), where I spent my childhood,” he said.
His father died when Ciccarelli was 12, and the family moved around. His first acquaintance with Massachusetts came when he attended Mount Hermon School, a college prep school in Gill. He subsequently went to the University of Rochester (NY), where met his future wife Margaret and played on the football team. It was his own eye injury that motivated Ciccarelli to go into ophthalmology.
“When I was at Rochester, we were playing against Amherst. I was the offensive center,” he said. “Fellow came in from the other side and punched me in the eye.”
Though the blow briefly knocked him unconscious, his coach wanted to put Ciccarelli back in the game, and no problem was noticed till a year later, when he and his new wife had eye exams. The doctor found a small detachment of the retina affecting Ciccarelli’s peripheral vision. It was 1951 and part of the recovery process then was to immobilize the head with sandbags. He recalled the doctor caught the young couple making out, and said, “Dammit, Ciccarelli, you can’t do that!”
Dr. Ciccarelli went to Harvard Medical School in Boston for his medical degree and Harvard University’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in East Bridgewater for his residency. He completed an internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He found the latter difficult because “they wouldn’t let you sleep.” Interns, then and now, often worked long hours, sometimes for 24 hours straight.
Things changed for the better with a fellowship at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary's Howe Laboratory of Ophthalmology.
“I had wonderful teachers at Mass Eye and Ear,” he said. “Every day of the week, we had a different chief – every one was a well-known and excellent authority.”
After completing his fellowship, Dr. Ciccarelli decided against going into academia.
“I wanted to go into individual practice, but be close to Boston to keep my contacts up,” he said.
He considered Keene, NH but settled on Cape Cod, where he said he became the first ophthalmologist to live and practice fulltime in the area. After 12-15 years, the number of ophthalmologists on the Cape climbed to four, he said. His first office was located behind Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis in the basement of the office of a radiology office. Dr. Ciccarelli built his own office about a dozen years later.
The Cape’s population grew, as did the region’s hospitals and the demand for eye healthcare. Large groups of eye doctors moved into the area in the 1980s, he said. These were based in the Boston area, and their doctors did not live on Cape. Ciccarelli and a few local colleagues performed eye surgeries at Cape Cod Hospital, and provided coverage for eye injuries and ills at the hospital’s emergency department. Meanwhile, the big groups created their own surgical centers.
It was the move of colleagues and surgical support staff away from the hospital – not age – that eventually caused Dr. Ciccarelli to cease doing surgical procedures 15 year ago at age 75.
“I was left as the only one,” he said.
His practice also shifted toward older patients, many of whom had already had cataract surgery. As a result, his work moved toward glaucoma and other conditions that could be treated medically, he said. He continued providing consultations to doctors, now often hospitalists.
Advances He’s Seen
One of the earliest improvements Dr. Ciccarelli recalled came in the treatment of cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens, which is common as people age.
“When I first came down, I’d do a cataract surgery with an incision almost an inch in size” to remove the lens, he said. “In the old days, then you’d have to wear big thick cataract glasses (after surgery). We wouldn’t do one eye until the other got cloudy.”
During the early 1970s, he began using a microscope during surgery, and needles and sutures improved. He also started using implants. The first such lenses were rigid, but flexible ones followed. These could be folded, needing a wound only 3 mm in diameter to be inserted. This meant incisions could be smaller. In the 1980s, he began using an ultrasound probe for phacoemulsification – liquification of the opaque lens – which then could be suctioned out.
“I was one of the early ones in the area using the technique,” Dr. Ciccarelli said.
Lasers entered the field in the 1970s, and at first were “a solution looking for a problem,” Dr. Ciccarelli said, but ended up “very, very important in ophthalmology.” One application called an iridotomy puts a small hole in the iris to reduce pressure in the eyeball in cases of angle-closure glaucoma, which “can blind you quite rapidly,” he said.
Lasers can also be used diagnostically for examination of the retina and optic nerve, Dr. Ciccarelli said.
“It’s really revolutionary how we look at circulation, macular degeneration,” he said.
Exercise, Hobbies and Retirement
Dedication to exercise may be Dr. Ciccarelli’s key to maintaining a healthy body and active mind.
“I got into long-distance running; I ran 21 marathons, 14 Boston Marathons,” he said. “I ran the first Falmouth Road Race and the 20th Falmouth Road Race.”
Dr. Ciccarelli ran his first marathon at age 33 in 1974 and his last one 31 years later at age 64.
Spinal stenosis put an end to marathons.
“My surgeon said no more running,” Dr. Ciccarelli said, but his physician allowed biking. Dr. Ciccarelli said he had done some cycling during triathlons, and still rides, as well as fast walking and cross-country skiing.
“I still exercise three days a week” he said, though he conceded “my skiing is nowhere near as good as it used to be.”
“I still bike; did 20 miles a couple of days ago.”
Dr. Lytle said he thought Dr. Ciccarelli might slow down a few years ago when he had a bike accident and broke his collarbone, but no.
“He continues to be a wealth of knowledge,” Dr. Lytle said.
After Dr. Ciccarelli retires, Dr. Lytle and Dr. Tanguilig will see his patients. The process of transferring them over to his practice has been ongoing for a while now.
Dr. Ciccarelli’s wife of many years, Margaret, died five years ago, and together they had five children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Dr. Ciccarelli said the family likes to take cross-country ski vacations at the Von Trapp Lodge at Stowe, VT, and those will continue.
In his spare time, Dr. Ciccarelli plans to dive deeper into his hobbies of collecting antique toy railroad sets, detailing his family’s genealogy, and using Photoshop to alter and improve photographs. He’s also in a new relationship.
Dr. Ciccarelli said he has no regrets about his choice to be in independent practice on the Cape.
“I always asked my family ‘how did I choose such a wonderful place?’” he said, speaking from his Osterville home.
He estimated that he had 30-40 people work for him over his career, including his wife, who kept the books. He praised his longtime secretaries.
“They’re wonderful people,” he said. “They’ve been a great pair.”
“He’s definitely an old-school doctor,” Levins said. “He’s been dedicated to the hospital; he could’ve joined a group.”
She said the similarity between her first name, Eugenia, and the doctor’s, Eugene, was a standing joke at the office. When she first started, some patients thought perhaps she was Dr. Ciccarelli’s daughter, named after him. They aren’t related, but she and Staples became close to Dr. Ciccarelli and his family.
“He always treated us as family,” she added. “It’s very bittersweet.”