NY Times: “Our Towns; The New Millennium Fashion Question: ‘Who Does Your Eyes?”
The wall is hung with pictures of the near-famous. The newscaster Jack Ford. The Yankees coach Lee Mazzilli. The radio host Bob Grant. The radio DJ Dan Neer. You almost expect to see a Jackie Mason publicity shot inscribed, “Love That Corned Beef!!!”
But this is no delicatessen. The menu here is all corneas. This is the New Jersey Eye Center, home of the laser-wielding Dr. Joseph Dello Russo, the used-eyes-made-new alchemist who has helped foster one of the most surprising developments in modern medicine: the celebrity ophthalmologist.
Perhaps not since the proctologist Jeffrey LaVigne plastered New York subways with advertisements to call 1-800-MD-TUSCH have doctors made such a spectacle of themselves. But it is fitting. Laser surgery has all the requisite postmodern elements — technology, a quick fix, a sense of new beginnings, low risk. So why not celebrity?
Just recently, Dr. Dello Russo operated on Mr. Ford live on Good Morning America. ”I was talking back and forth with Diane Sawyer,” the doctor said.
His waiting room is full of ecstatic former four-eyes. ”Every decade has its thing,” said Wayne Kessler, 25, after emerging from the much-advertised ”flying spot laser.” ”The 70′s was bell-bottoms. The new millennium is getting your eyes done.”
For Dr. Dello Russo, the late 70s and the 80s were about cataract surgery and lots of it. ”He was a big cutter,” says Stephanie Waterman, his marketing director and wife. But reimbursement rates fell, and when doctors began correcting vision with lasers in the early 90s, Dr. Dello Russo’s office was an early test site. Like other independent ophthalmologists, he now charges up to $5,500 for both eyes.
With new technology simplifying surgery and lowering risk and the country flush with disposable income, you can hardly turn on the radio or open a newspaper without encountering a laser surgeon. It might be Dr. Dello Russo.
There is friction among laser luminaries. Dr. Dello Russo said he started advertising so heavily because he was irked by Dr. Mandel’s ads about his role in laser research. ”Despite him, the laser was developed,” Dr. Dello Russo said. Dr. Mandel, who did have a fellowship at Harvard, said Dr. Dello Russo’s claim to fame is he bought the first laser.”
The doctors are trying to polish their credentials before the business is swallowed by clinics that zap eyes for as little as $999 each. ”Everyone’s looking for a piece of the laser market,” Dr. Dello Russo said. ”You need a hook.”
Dr. Moadel got his by operating on Bernie Williams between his fabulous 1999 season and his more fabulous current season. Mr. Williams now endorses Dr. Moadel in advertisements, for which Dr. Moadel says he pays a ”token amount” that is ”less than a day’s pay” for Mr. Williams. The center fielder makes $12.5 million a year for 162 games, so a day’s pay is real money, even for a laser surgeon.
Every doctor has his big-name patients. ”We do a lot of doctors,” Dr. Mandel said. ”I did an obstetrician yesterday. I did a cardiologist last week. I did a Knick last week.” Soon, Kurt Thomas is on the phone, reporting: “I can read license plates! I can see people’s facial expressions!”
The Yankees general manager, Brian Cashman, praises the surgery, which he said Dr. Dello Russo performed free in exchange for using Mr. Cashman’s name to promote his practice. Mr. Neer, the D.J., said that he also got free surgery from Dr. Dello Russo in exchange for reading an ad on the air and that several relatives followed him as paying patients.
Dr. Dello Russo says his advertising campaign, which his wife estimates cost “several million” dollars a year, is intended to emphasize his experience. He has a new office in Manhattan and will soon open a bigger one in Bergenfield.
Where does it all end? ”I’m intensely goal oriented,” Dr. Dello Russo said. He’s setting things up for his three sons — two are in medical training and one is considering it.
So with all due respect to Drs. Mandel and Moadel, we’re looking at Dr. Dello Russo for as far as the eye can see. Which these days seem like forever.