Hindsight is 20/20: Alumni Return to Train the Next Gen of Ophthalmologist
Jun 26, 2024
Sutter Health
Close up of a phoroptor, an instrument used by eye care professionals during an eye examination.

By Debbie Ritenour, Vitals contributor

Training the next generation of physicians is vital for addressing the physician workforce shortage and enhancing access to high-quality healthcare. Yet, effective training extends beyond initial education. It is essential to retain and empower graduates to take leadership roles. At Sutter Health, a not-for profit healthcare system in California, some former residents have returned to lead the very programs they graduated from.

Sam Reiter, M.D., and Ann Leu Thomas, M.D., both completed their ophthalmology residency at Sutter’s California Pacific Medical Center. Today, Dr. Reiter serves as director of the residency program and Dr. Thomas as the associate director. Both are grateful for the experiences the program provided and continues to provide them today.

Continuous Learning

Dr. Ann Thomas

Dr. Ann Thomas

After a mentor in medical school highly recommended CPMC for its strong clinical training, Dr. Thomas, a Bay Area native, knew she wanted to match there.

“It was as good as I had hoped it would be,” she says. “In particular, I noticed that many of the faculty were themselves alumni of the program. That was a big clue that this is a special program.”

Dr. Thomas appreciated the supportive, close-knit nature of the program. In addition to developing strong relationships with her fellow residents, she formed important connections with the faculty and community ophthalmologists.

“The attending surgeons always encouraged us to think independently but know when to ask for help, which empowered us to tackle challenges ourselves,” she says. “They prepared us for independent practice.”

After graduating in 2019, Dr. Thomas accepted a position as an ophthalmologist with Sutter Medical Group in Solano County. She returned to the program as medical director of the Lions Eye Clinic at CPMC in San Francisco in 2021 and was named associate program director in 2023.

“I love interacting with the residents. They teach me just as much as I teach them and keep me at the top of my game,” she says. “I also love the continuity in serving underserved patients.”

Making a Difference

Dr. Samuel Reiter

Dr. Samuel Reiter

Dr. Reiter became interested in ophthalmology while pursuing global health opportunities in Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and other developing nations during college and medical school. After witnessing firsthand the connection between poverty and preventable blindness, the Santa Rosa native decided to devote his career to improving the eye health of underserved communities—starting in his home state.

“I did a rotation at CPMC when I got back and realized you don’t have to travel around the world to see immense eye care needs,” says Dr. Reiter, who went on to complete his residency at CPMC in 2018 before returning to lead the program in 2023.

As part of their training, residents serve a diverse population of low-income and uninsured patients in the Lions Eye Clinic, as well as within Alameda Health System in the East Bay. These unique opportunities are part of what makes the program—and its residents—special.

“We seek people who are passionate about caring for patients in need,” says Dr. Reiter. “We offer an exceptional experience for residents who are driven by that passion and who want to feel like they’re making a difference.”

Dr. Reiter definitely feels like he’s making a difference as program director.

“I get to indirectly care for all of these patients by teaching, mentoring and molding the residents into the best doctors and surgeons they can be,” he says. “I make sure they’re delivering the high-quality care these patients deserve. It’s wonderful.”

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