Wills doctor's 'lucky' path has been patients' luck, too

Posted: March 20, 2013

Jerry Shields was born, the last of eight children, in a Kentucky backwater where boys quit high school and became coal miners or farmers.

"That was my destiny," he said. "But I was lucky."

As Shields, 75, tells it, he was just an unassuming good ol' boy with mediocre grades and little ambition who, through serendipity, wound up becoming a renowned eye cancer specialist and director of ocular oncology at Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia. Meeting "the right people at the right time" shaped his Horatio Alger-ish story, he says.

But his codirector, who happens to be his wife, knows better. Carol Shields, 55, has become as preeminent as her former mentor while raising seven children with him.

"Jerry, without any guidance, broke into the field and made his way," she said. "He took advantage of those lucky breaks."

The couple offered a rare personal retrospective last week, prompted by his latest award, presented Monday in New York City. He was named a National Physician of the Year by Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., publisher of the "America's Top Doctors" book series. Honorees are chosen annually after nominations by peers.

He "is a pioneer," the firm said, "developing treatments that have saved the lives and eyesight of countless patients throughout the world."

He insists it was as much luck as pluck: "I didn't know anything about ophthalmology. I just wanted a medical specialty that didn't involve terrible hours. When I came to Wills as a resident, I had no interest in academic research or writing papers."

His scientific publications, including seminal textbooks, now number about 1,600 and counting.

Shields' mother left school after fourth grade. His parents never learned to drive. His siblings didn't finish high school.

Yet he went to Kentucky's Murray State University on a small football scholarship, worked his way through the University of Michigan Medical School, and trained in internal medicine in Denver.

It was not a coherent plan, he said. He majored in biology in college because of his childhood obsession with lepidoptera - butterflies. "I had no intention of going to medical school, but all the biology majors said they were 'premed,' so I did, too."

In 1965, his medical training was interrupted when he was drafted. He served as a Marine Corps combat surgeon in Vietnam.

But arriving at Wills in 1967 was a turning point; a series of mentors recognized his gifts.

Back then, the subspecialty of ocular oncology did not exist. Tumors of the eyelids, conjunctiva, retina, cornea, and orbit are individually rare, so even top ophthalmologists saw few cases. When they did, the treatment was drastic and unvarying - remove the diseased eye or eyes.

Shields hoped to kill the cancer while preserving the eye, ideally with some vision.

Luther Brady, a Hahnemann University Hospital radiation oncologist, was already a towering figure in his field when he began collaborating with Shields in the 1970s. Their innovations included "plaque radiotherapy," in which a thin piece of metal with radioactive seeds is sewn onto the outside wall of the eye to kill a tumor, and "Cyberknife" radiation surgery.

"The work Dr. Shields did changed the whole mind-set of the retinal community," said Brady, 88. "It galvanized the whole treatment program toward preservation of the eye."

In 1973, Shields' superiors asked him to stay and devote himself to oncology. "It built and built," he said. "Now, we see 40 new tumor patients every Monday" from all over the world.

In 1984, Carol Lally was one of the new crop of residents at Wills.

The native of Sharon, Pa., northwest of Pittsburgh, already had a long list of academic and athletic honors from Notre Dame, where she was a basketball star, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

She did not know who Jerry Shields was when friends paired them on a tennis court.

But he knew about her.

"I thought maybe the way to her heart was through basketball," he said. "So I asked her to a Sixers game."

Within a year, they wed, defying his mother's admonition not to marry a Yankee or a Catholic. The groom was 48, the bride, 28.

"The age difference scared me a little," she said. "But I had been dating guys from Pittsburgh, like the lawyer who never had a hair out of place. Jerry was different. I felt completely comfortable. There was no pretense."

Quite the opposite.

"His hair was a mess," she said, laughing. "His pants were always above his ankles. I thought, 'This guy needs a lot of work!' "

As driven to improve patients' outcomes as her husband was, she focused on retinoblastoma, a childhood cancer that arises in the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.

She helped pioneer a procedure in which chemotherapy is squirted directly into the eye through the tiny ophthalmic artery. It kills the tumor while reducing the side effects of bodywide chemo.

Wills now treats about 150 U.S. children with retinoblastoma a year - half of all new cases - and many from overseas.

As the duo walked through Wills' waiting room last week, it became clear why they still eagerly start work each day at 6:15 a.m. A melanoma patient, in for a checkup, stopped them.

"I can never repay you," said Jill Pelletier of Ghent, N.Y. "Seven years ago, I was given seven days to live. You saved my eye, and I have such good peripheral vision, I still ride my motorcycle."

The Shields family homestead in Bryn Mawr seems straight out of an Andrew Wyeth painting, complete with a 300-year-old farmhouse, a springhouse, and the rolling hills of the adjacent nature preserve.

At Idlewild Farm, the couple's other great collaboration is obvious. Photos and artwork abound of Jerry, 24; Patrick, 23; Bill, 22; Maggie Mae, 21; John, 20; Nellie, 17; and Mary Rose, 13.

Their mother stresses that live-in caretakers have been a crucial blessing over the years. But this is no Nanny Diaries household. The kids are all athletic and the five oldest - no longer at home - are in or aiming for medical school.

"I think they saw how happy we were with our profession and our lifestyle," Carol Shields said.

For his part, Jerry has no plans to retire. His schedule is packed with lectures, research, patients. "I am fortunate," he said, "to see many of the more challenging cases from around the world."

Contact Marie McCullough

at 215-854-2720 or mmccullough@phillynews.com.

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