Renee Richards, the tennis player, needs no introduction. In 1975 Richard Raskind became Renee Richards, and the whole world knows that story. In 1977 Richards, a famous ophthalmologist off the tennis court, began playing on the women’s professional tennis circuit and later coached Martina Navratilova to her first victory on red clay at the 1982 French Open Championships and to several other Grand Slam titles.
Dr. Renee Richards, the tennis player and ophthalmologist, was inducted into the Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000 and spent her last day In the operating room on Dec. 18, 2013. Renee, pictured here third from right with tennis champs (l-r) Dick Savitt, Fred Kovaleski, the late Ham Richardson and Gene Scott, and Butch Seewagen the night she emceed the 2005 Fame induction ceremony, said recently: "I was born for two things, to play tennis and operate on eyes. It's what I do, it's who I am and now I don't do either anymore. But that’s okay. I did what I was meant to do."
Renee, who will be the subject of this year's exhibit at the American Academy of Ophthalmology about famous people who have had other careers, has written a riveting, detailed account of her final day in the operating room (below).
December 18 -- I got up at 5 a.m.; it was still dark. I drove Arleen [and Rocco] to the train station in Brewster, usually 20 minutes, with black ice on the twisting roads around the reservoir, temperature still in single digits. It took a half hour. Drank my coffee and ate a donut on the way. Quick goodbye. Took the elevator up one level -- too old now to climb the stairs -- bought my ticket in the machine, crossed over to the other side, took the elevator down to the track and caught the 6:40 a.m. train to Grand Central. I read The New York Times on my Kindle. Imagine that!
I used Arleen’s Metro card to get past the turnstile into the subway. Had to swipe it twice, not fast enough the first time -- the commuter behind me on line impatient with my fumbling -- squeezed into the No. 4 train downtown, got out at Union Square, 14th St. and walked four long blocks, freezing, to N.Y. Eye and Ear (I call it the Infirmary.) Changed into my scrubs and went to find Lisa Hall, my surgery partner. Sweet Lisa looks like she is 16 -- petite, beautiful, soft spoken. Looks can be deceiving. She is 50, the mother of two teenage daughters, a former registered nurse before she went back to study medicine. She arrived at the old Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital as one of my residents in training, became a talented eye surgeon and is now the director of pediatric ophthalmology at the Infirmary. We have been helping each other in the OR for 15 years.
On December 18 we looked for our first patient in the ‘holding’ area -- really ‘her’ first patient, ‘me’ the assistant that day. I did my own cases the week before, a 17-year-old with a longstanding head tilt from vertical eye muscle imbalance. Only one muscle, an inferior oblique recession, a vertical, but easy, not a ‘re-op’, no scarring from previous surgery. Second case, a 52-year-old man with restricted elevation in one eye, sees double all over from vertical misalignment, had radiation years ago for orbital tumor on the optic nerve, now has radiation necrosis involving the inferior rectus. Put the inferior rectus on adjustable suture so we could wake him up, check position, and loosen or tighten the suture to change alignment of the eyes until double vision eliminated. Had quick bite to eat, Tilapia, fried, very good food at the Infirmary. Cafeteria open to one and all. Lisa paid for lunch - ten bucks for both of us.
Third case, re-op, 45-year-old woman, excited to meet me in holding area, tried to shake hands, I said ‘no shaking hands before surgery’. Three muscles, one the most complicated for surgery of all the eye muscles, the superior oblique. In the recovery room, the patient, still groggy and uncomfortable, asked if I would sign her copy of ‘No Way Renee’. In recovery she asks me this. I said ‘Sure’. I wrote ‘to -----, Straight eyes are a privilege, and a right. Good for you! Enjoy. Renee Richards.’ Lisa does a beautiful operation on three muscles on one eye and the patient is asking me to sign her book! Then we brought the orbital tumor case back to the OR, adjusted him on the table, let the muscle slide back, too much, tightened it up, back and forth until he was ‘fusing’ comfortably -- using both eyes together without double vision -- and then we tied the suture and closed up. Fourth case, re-op, 35-year-old came in with his parents in the holding area. One muscle, but a re-op.
The whole day Lisa is telling everyone she sees: "This is Dr. Richards' last day." I keep trying to shush her. Other surgeons keep coming up to me, between cases, during our cases, to say hello, good bye, whatever, schmooze, congratulate, commiserate. Paul Finger, another former resident of mine, now one of the world’s authorities on tumors of the eye and orbit, came in to the OR, we reminisced, even about the research operations we did on the monkeys at the now defunct Primate Center hidden in the woods in Rockland County. And after surgery, in the doctors’ lounge Brian Campolatoro, now the most productive eye muscle surgeon in the hospital, maybe in the country, kept saying “Congratulations, Renee, Congratulations.”
I was getting self-conscious. Lisa tells the staff, the nurses, the orderlies, everyone. Rowena, my gentle and favorite scrub nurse, originally from the Philippines where most of our hospital nurses came from, came over, we hugged and I felt like crying. Only I didn’t.
I left the OR for the last time just before 4 p.m.. I looked around -- at the anesthesia machine, the electronic monitors, the video camera mounted on an arm from the ceiling [how often did I crack my head on that after surgery?], the operating microscope, and other machines around the room not even invented when I first learned to operate. And then I did not look back. I went up to my locker, changed into my street clothes, put on my boots for the slush outside, walked the four blocks to the subway, squeezed and pushed my way into the rush hour crush into the no. 4 train, one express stop to Grand Central.
I caught the 4:18 to Southeast [Brewster North on the Harlem line, the line next to that awful crash on the Hudson line]. Arleen met me at 5:45 with little Romeo and Rocco. Long ride home in the dark, Christmas traffic in Carmel the worst, roads not made for it. Home finally, shower, vodka on the rocks, dinner of roasted chicken and rice, and salad! Then a stupid movie with Robert DeNiro, called the “Family” about a mafia family relocated by FBI to countryside town in Normandy. The family couldn't seem to change its ways even removed from its familiar environment. But I wasn’t thinking about that, nor about me, nor about more than half a century in the operating room, thousands and thousands of kids and adults, maybe double that the number of eyes, hundreds of residents and post graduate fellows learning along the way. I wasn’t even thinking ‘it’s over.’ I just went to bed.