Just flying to help

March 15, 2007

For Theodore Perl, MD, flying is not a hobby; it's a second profession. This busy corneal specialist in West Orange, NJ, is the founder and medical director of a busy laser center and is the preceptor for a 1-year cornea fellowship program. And he's logged nearly 3,000 miles in the air, licensed with instrument, multi-engine, and commercial ratings.

Dr. Perl began flying when he was 17. His father had been a navigator in World War II and got his own plane upon returning home. Dr. Perl now owns his own Beech King Air, a corporate turbo prop that seats 10, and he also flies a Cessna Citation CJ3 commercial jet. He flies for personal, business, and corporate use.

His training to be a professional pilot is continual and rigorous. He attends Flight Safety International for training every 6 months with other professional pilots.

Dr. Perl remembers starting medical school aiming to be a heart surgeon. "I was drawn to that specialty because I wanted the adrenaline rush, the high-wire act, being on call, high-tech stuff," he said.

Half way through his training, though, he was introduced to a cornea transplant program. "It sounded cool," he said. "I could use a microscope and other very high-tech, cutting-edge instruments. The doctor interviewing me asked about eye-hand coordination and dexterity, if I was a pilot or musician. I said I was both, and today, I'm a cornea transplant surgeon."

Dr. Perl sees many parallels between his two professions. "I love the precision of instrument flying, relying on instruments, meticulous attention to detail, using high-tech gadgets," he said. "It's just like eye surgery-splitting hairs. I'm compulsive about being meticulous both as a physician and a pilot."

Shuttling service

Dr. Perl continually looks for opportunities to combine his two passions and found one in the chance to assist residents on Martha's Vineyard with ophthalmic care. (He maintains a home in Chilmark on the island.)

In a cooperative agreement with Vineyard optometrist David Finkelstein, Dr. Perl shuttles patients from the Massachusetts island to his New Jersey office, where he provides LASIK and other services.

Dr. Perl, together with Dr. Finkelstein, now also treats corneal infections, ulcers, abrasions, and other injuries, as well as genetic corneal disorders on the island.

"The benefit for Vineyarders is that they no longer have to visit the emergency room or travel off-island to Boston," explained Dr. Perl. "And, on the way home from New Jersey, patients enjoy the wonders of the New York and New England skylines with their new vision."

Piloting relief

In the summer of 2005, with news of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, Dr. Perl found another way that he and his plane could be helpful-in recovery efforts. He volunteered with Angel Flight Southeast (AFSE), a non-profit organization composed of 1,000 pilots who use their own planes, fuel, and time to transport people in need to medical facilities. AFSE pilots also assist relief agencies.