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Prominent Harvard Professor of Ophthalmology and Surgeon Demetrios  Vavvas, Speaks to TNH

September 7, 2023

BOSTON – Dr. Demetrios Vavvas, an endowed professor of Ophthalmology at the prestigious Harvard University in Boston, is not only a top scientist but, more importantly, a person of integrity and ethics.

He heads the Retina Service at Mass Eye and Ear, a Harvard teaching hospital dedicated to eye, and ear, nose, throat, head, and neck (ENT) care and research, and his curriculum vitae consists of dozens of pages filled with scientific achievements. He periodically teaches at universities in Greece, participates in conferences, and delivers lectures in several countries around the world.

Dr. Demetrios Vavvas granted to the National Herald the following interview:

The National Herald: Let’s start with your background, your early years, and your education.

Dr. Vavvas: My father is from Laka Souli (Epirus/Ioannina), and my mother is from Neochori, Chios. I was born in Athens (Moschato) and grew up in Agios Ioannis Rentis in Piraeus. I attended public school, elementary, junior high, and high school in Greece, and I crossed the Atlantic and obtained my first university degree with First Class Honors in Neurosciences from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and a double degree in Medicine and a PhD from Boston University School of Medicine. I subsequently trained in ophthalmology and retina surgery at Mass Eye and Ear/Harvard Medical School. Since then, I have been a university physician-scientist, reaching the rank of an endowed tenured full professor at Harvard Medical School, and I am the director of the Retina Service at the Harvard affiliated Hospital Mass Eye and Ear/Mass General Brigham.

TNH: What drew you to Medicine, specifically ophthalmology?

Dr. Vavvas: A conversation with my father when I was in the second year of high school. He explained to me that in society, there are three ‘professions’ that are not just professions but sacred missions: the priest, the teacher, and the doctor.

Dr. Demetrios Vavvas is an endowed professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard University. Photo provided by Dr. Demetrios Vavvas

He told me that through medicine, I could contribute to my fellow human beings and to science, provided I think carefully about it and if I like it, to follow this path. This explanation from my father made a lot of sense, and I thought it sounded good and right, so I decided to pursue it.

During medical school, I liked all the specialties. But because my father had congenital cataracts, I wanted to explore ophthalmology. After my rotation at Mass Eye and Ear, I was impressed by what a doctor can do in this field for people, the advanced technology it involves, the delicate surgery, the immediate results, and how much more there is to discover. That’s when I fell in love with this field. I had the blessing of performing surgery on my father in 2005, and I thank God every day for the guidance I received and continue to receive from Him.

TNH: What are some of the most common eye diseases?

Dr. Vavvas: Dry eye, cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.

TNH: What protective and preventive measures would you recommend for eye health?

Dr. Vavvas: Leading a truly healthy lifestyle and diet. Regular preventive examinations.

TNH: Could you please, if possible, explain to us in simple terms for everyone to understand how the human eye functions?

Dr. Vavvas: The human eye focuses the by using the cornea (2/3 of the power) and the lens (one third of the power) to the back of the eye on the most forward extension of the brain called retina (yes, the brain extends forward into the eye). The retina has various layers. The first layer consists of 120 million photoreceptors that capture light like a camera’s film/sensor (~120 million ‘pixels’). After that, this signal is processed by other layers of the retina and, once processed, is sent through the optic nerve to various parts of the brain, especially the occipital lobe (the back part of the brain), before reaching the higher centers of the brain.

The retina, together with the optic nerve, ARE the most crucial parts of the eye, functioning like a highly complex processor/computer with hundreds of millions of neurons and a complex processing circuit. It cannot be replaced or regenerated, just like the rest of the brain.

TNH: How do external conditions such as sunlight, bright lights, electronic devices, and TV screens affect vision and eyes in general, and how can one protect themselves?

Dr. Vavvas: Exposure to very bright light is not recommended and can lead to issues from simple discomfort to significant permanent problems if the intensity and duration are excessive. Most people do not expose themselves to such strong light (i.e., staring at the sun for minutes) that can cause acute damage. However, typically, people are exposed to light levels that, while not causing acute harm, can, over time, lead to side effects.

The most common side effect we see in modern lifestyles is from increased exposure to blue light, especially, during the evening hours (due to computers, etc.). This affects the circadian rhythm and subsequently negatively impacts our sleep. Additionally, intense focus on screens for gaming and similar activities affects blinking frequency, which can worsen dry eye symptoms. Because most individuals engaging in these activities are young and have good reserves, they are not immediately affected or able to sense problems, however, problems will gradually happen  over time.

TNH: For which diseases is conventional surgery no longer required today, now that modern electronic means and methods are used?

Dr. Vavvas: All surgeries still need to be performed by surgeons using their hands. However, all surgeries are now assisted by high-tech machines and computers, making surgeries safer, less painful, and quicker in terms of recovery. Some surgeries, like LASIK, are more automated, but even these procedures require manual initiation.

In general, all surgeries involve a combination of a surgeon and technology, and all have improved for the better.

TNH: How do you feel every time you restore someone’s eye health?

Dr. Vavvas: It’s a divine gift! We simply lend our hands and we are grateful for the opportunity to be part of it.

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