Retirement leaves one ophthalmologist in Vicksburg|[06/01/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 30, 2008


It’s a word that brought James Cook a successful 28-year career and the honor of being “in the upper 50th percentile” when he became board certified – simply because he could spell the name of the specialty he had chosen.

“We had to spell it out,” Cook said of the exam he tackled two years after he took the first steps to becoming an ophthalmologist. “I receive letters from hospitals and all kinds of prestigious literature where it’s misspelled.”

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Now, after performing 5,000 radial keratotomies, 15,000 cataract procedures, 200 corneal transplants and more than 5,000 Lasik procedures in his two decades of practice in Vicksburg, Cook said neck problems are forcing him to retire as one of two ophthalmologists in Vicksburg. His last day will be Wednesday.

“I decided I wanted to retire for medical reasons and to do some traveling and gardening and spend more time with my family,” he said.

Cook, married to Naomi Paquette Cook, is the father of Megan Cook and the late James Cook III.

Vicksburg optometrist Chris Collins will leave his practice with Samuel Ashley and start his own practice in the Mission 66 building where Cook has operated Cook Eye Clinic since 2001.

Cook and Donald Hall, who has a practice on Indiana Avenue, have been the only two ophthalmologists in Vicksburg for about 10 years. When Cook, 58, retires, two surgeons – Philip C. Smith and Troy Newman from Jackson Eye Associates – will come into Collins’ practice a couple of times a month to perform surgeries, Cook said. Richard Chiu, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center who specializes in retina, will continue to come into the clinic to provide services.

But it won’t be the same, said Cook’s receptionist, Carol Crabtree.

“We’re sad. I’ve been with him a long time,” said Crabtree, who’s worked at Cook’s office for 11 years. “But, we’re excited he can retire and travel. He’s going to be missed by us and all his patients.”

Since the surgeon began practicing, a lot has changed.

“The laser is the biggest jump we’ve seen,” he said. “When I was in medical school, I never dreamed we’d be doing this, and I never dreamed I’d be doing it in Vicksburg.”

Cook has been performing laser surgeries since 1997, and he opened the first laser vision center in Mississippi and performed one of the first Lasik surgeries in the state. Lasik is a type of refractive laser eye surgery for correcting myopia, hyperopia and astigmatism.

Cook’s journey to ophthalmology was an unexpected one. Although he attended a rural high school in his hometown of Walterboro, S.C., he completed only three years and went on to Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. But, once again, he stopped after three years. His interest in biology and chemistry, however, inspired him to take the MCAT, a medical school entrance exam. He made scores high enough to entice him to take the plunge.

“I didn’t plan to go to medical school, but I had a good score and just went ahead and decided,” he said.

He attended medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans, graduating in 1974. After a 1 1/2-year stint with the U.S. Air Force in Okinawa, Japan, he returned to the United States for his residency, which he finished in 1980. His connections with Vicksburg ophthalmologist Patrick McLain, who had trained at Tulane, brought him to Vicksburg.

From the beginning, Cook has made milestones in his profession by becoming the first ophthalmologist in Vicksburg to perform “no stitch” cataract surgery, which he began in 1985. Two years before, he began performing phacoemulsification, a process in which the eye’s internal lens is emulsified with an ultrasonic handpiece and aspirated from the eye. Cook also was the first ophthalmologist in the area to perform corneal transplants.

“He is very, very smart. I’ve seen him diagnose things that I would never dream of,” said Crabtree, who worked for optometrist Jerry Hayes for 13 years before joining Cook’s staff. “He’s a brilliant surgeon with the steadiest hand I’ve ever seen.”

Mary Anne Lambert, a patient who has been seeing Cook for 10 years, said he has always been professional and trustworthy.

“What he has told me, I don’t doubt. I’ve always been willing to go along with what he said,” she said. “I wish he’d come back, but he’s earned everything he’s got.”

Many of his customers have heard about him through word of mouth – especially for his Lasik procedures, Crabtree said.

“He’s had such great success with Lasik. I have a lot of friends who have had it done, and they can’t say enough about it,” she said.

Cook considers the Lasik his “first love” and said he will miss the happiness he has brought to his patients with the procedure.

“They are some of the happiest patients, because they’re not having to wear glasses anymore,” he said. “It puts the glasses prescription on the cornea. It’s an amazing procedure.”

Cook said his patient records will be handed over to Collins. All of Cook’s staff members, including Crabtree, plan to work at Collins’ office.