“About the highest compliment a Kentuckian can pay another person is to say ‘He (or she) never forgot where they came from,” begins the text of the inner portion of the dust jacket of Me, Myself & Eyes: Life Stories of an Eyeball Mechanic, a book by William J. Collis, MD – a Greek-American Kentuckian physician.
Or as the self-effacing ophthalmologist with a lifetime of distinguished accomplishments refers to himself: an “eyeball mechanic.”
“I planned this book for my family, close friends, and coworkers in ophthalmology,” Dr. Collis told TNH.
Me, Myself & Eyes is a “book of stories,” Collis writes in the preface. “The stories are true,” he explains: “perhaps they will rekindle your own special memories that you can also enjoy.”
Collis begins with a chapter about growing up in Winchester, in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, continues through to his days as a basketball player and, of course, his long and illustrious career as an eye surgeon. Among the most heartwarming stories in the book are those involving his courtship of, marriage to, and half-century life journey (51 years this past July) with his wife, Connie.
Another story that stands out one that took place in 1973, when anesthesia was not as safe as it is today, and an 82 year-old woman wanted to have surgery to straighten out her eyes, purely for cosmetic reasons. Though Collis was against the idea, she relented, he performed the surgery, and the woman’s life changed. Her lifelong dream was to have eyes that were straight. A year later, now 83, she not only looked great, but felt great, and had married her college sweetheart!
SIX MONTHS LATER
Me, Myself & Eyes was published in October, and “very soon after sales of the book began at the stores, Connie and I left on a 17-day cruise of the North America-Atlantic coast,” he told TNH. Quite the vivid and convivial storyteller, Collis continued: “the subject of the book came up with fellow travelers just enough for me to consider wearing a beret or turtleneck sweater or growing a beard! One walk around the deck easily brought me back to reality: I am a family man who was a retired eye surgeon and now is an amateur bridge player” (in the book he elaborates on his love for the game of bridge).
Collis writes of his Hellenic heritage throughout the book, but devotes a chapter specifically to “Returning to My Greek Orthodox Roots,” in which he explains his discovery of the Orthodox Church as an adult. Though Collis’ parents, Greek-born immigrants John and Elizabeth, were Orthodox, he and his brothers were raised in the Disciples of Christ Church. It was only after Collis and Connie were married that they and their two boys, Adam and Todd, attended Greek Orthodox Church services. Dr. and Mrs. Collis learned about the faith by teaching: they presented the technical aspects of Sunday School lessons to adults, and then the priest supplied the religious significance.
Collis also describes how his wife, diagnosed with a “benign” form of multiple sclerosis, wondered if someone had given her the “evil eye,” and he did, too. For a long while Collis felt conflicted that his belief in the “mati,” stemming from tremendous love and concern for his wife, caused him to react in a manner that betrayed his knowledge as a medical professional.
“Religion will always remain very important to me,” Collis told TNH. “My definition of “religion” is how one lives their life. Others will have their definition and possibly theirs is more valuable to others. I was very indoctrinated by my father (an Orthodox), my teachers and preachers at the Disciples of Christ (“Christian Church”), as well as the Catholic Nuns in my first eight grades. It underscores the importance of religion to me that my Dad wanted us to understand Catechism and to go to Sunday School at the Protestant Church, in spite of the fact that he remained a devote Orthodox his entire life. My mother taught by example.
Concluding his discussion of religion on a humorous note, Collis quipped about the number one lesson in life he learned: “God really loves me as I am. Loves me? He/she must not be very choosy!”
Wanting to “give back” to their parents’ ancestral homes, the Collises decided to do something different than to build a chapel. They traveled to Greece where Collis gave the villagers eye exams using modern American equipment. He returned to the United States with the elated patients’ measurements, and then arranged for his mother to travel to Greece with suitcases filled with glasses. As she handed them out to the overjoyed villagers, she said she felt like “the Queen of America.”
But the Collises didn’t stop there. Since 1970, when they founded the Hellenic Ideals Program of the Bluegrass, they have been dedicated to promoting Hellenism based on the Ancient Hellenic ideals including: “importance and worth of the individual; concept of freedom; value of seeking the truth and being guided by it; principle of democracy allowing all citizens to govern themselves; awareness of perfect beauty leading us to higher aspirations; use of ethics as a guide in everything, including the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians; and importance of studying writing, gymnastics, philosophy, music, and painting [hellenicidealsprogram.org].
Why should one read Me, Myself & Eyes? “It is entertaining,” says the author. “It provides a huge number of unexpected thrills, humorous surprises, and heartwarming results that my patients and their families experienced.
Now that Collis has added “author” to his impressive curriculum vita, will he write another book? Maybe. “First, an updated version of Animal Farm. Second, a science-fiction tale of how bureaucrats do a miserable job and the world comes to ruin.”
Should we expect these books anytime soon? “I am frequently asked that,” he said. “I collected the material for Me, Myself & Eyes for 40 years. If I stay on schedule, my next book will be published in 2053.”