Michael Jones resisted as long as he could.
“When I was in medical school, I wanted to do anything but eyes,” said Michael, 37, an ophthalmologist and chief operating officer of Quantum Vision Centers.
His two older brothers were already in the eye business. Eric, 44, is an optometrist. Bart, 43, is an eye surgeon.
“I wanted to do something grand,” said Michael, who works at the Swansea office. “You kind of want to make your own path. I got into research, glaucoma research. It was an obvious fit. I got pretty far. I was able to present at a major meeting. At that point, it was a done deal, even though I didn’t want to go into eyeballs. I ended up running the business.”
The brothers are in business together. They are among 254 employees, including 17 medical doctors, 13 optometrists, in 19 offices across the metro area. Last year, their sister Betsy Elliott joined them.
“We had an opening for a job similar to what she had been doing,” said Michael. “She does all of our ophthalmology image laser scans. It’s extremely important to catch what the naked eye misses.”
Betsy, a radiologist tech for 20 years, was looking for a new challenge.
“It was the best thing I did,” she said. “I had lived in a small town my entire life. I never made that big of a decision, and I made it in a snap of a finger. I wanted to be down here around them. My husband was just as excited. He’s self-employed, an insurance adjustor. We moved within a month. Everything worked out well.”
The Jones kids — another sister is a chemist for the state of Illinois — grew up on a cattle farm in Petersburg, near Springfield. Their grandparents farmed. Their father was an accountant; their mom stayed home to care for the five children.
“I think our mom always wanted to be a nurse,” said Eric, who works out of the Fairview Heights office. “I don’t know if it was that influence that got us taking medical roads.”
What was tough about life on the farm?
“For me, getting up at 4:30 every morning, especially in weather like this, to feed cows,” said Michael. “I wanted to do anything to get off the farm, but it probably instilled a work ethic. Not one of us took up farming.”
Eric, the oldest sibling, looked into an eye-related profession first.
“Like a lot of people, I knew I wanted to do something in health care,” he said. “My college advisor suggested I spend a day in a medical, optical and dental office. I did. I was hooked on the eye. It was a lot about being able to help people instantly with glasses. It’s amazing how much you can find out about the rest of the body by looking at the eyes. All sorts of conditions relate to eyes.”
From diabetes and cardiovascular disease to aneurysms, cancer and rare hereditary diseases.
Ophthalomologist Bart likes the process and preciseness of his job, and enjoys interacting with patients.
Eric focuses on vision correction. He fits glasses and contact lenses, treats some eye diseases, but doesn’t perform surgery.
He starts by measuring vision with an eye chart — the same, but different from years ago. You now sit down and look at a calibrated chart projected onto a wall screen, instead of standing 20 feet away.
“The fundamentals of measuring vision haven’t changed in years and years,” said Michael.
But a lot has changed.
“Lasers have gotten so much better,” he said, pointing to an Allegretto Lasek machine in an adjoining suite. “The difference is the speed with which it fires. If you are (having surgery), two seconds versus 20 seconds is a big difference.”
They also have a LenSx machine that makes cataract surgery bladeless. It’s fairly new and not covered by insurance, but can be the procedure of choice for rock-hard cataracts or to correct an astigmatism.
There are new lenses for macular degeneration, currently in the FDA approval process. The lenses magnify the field of vision, improving the reading portion of the lens, but not losing distance.
“You don’t have to walk around with telescopes,” said Michael, who has performed about 3,000 surgeries in the last 10 years. “I didn’t have anything to offer them before.”
Christa Garner, director of operations, recalled an older patient with macular degeneration who hadn’t been able to read the newspaper for years. The day after surgery, he could.
“You don’t appreciate your eyesight until you start losing it,” said Michael. “There are still diseases that weaken vision. It’s hard when you’re telling someone, ‘I can’t bring your vision back,’ or with macular degeneration, ‘We have taken you as far as we can.’ It’s heartbreaking and it happens every day.”
But so do good things. With new surgeries available, a person with diminished vision may be almost blind on Tuesday and seeing quite well on Wednesday.
“It changes their life,” he said. “There are few things that have that immediate gratification. Take cataracts out and it improves their mental status.”
The four siblings live within a 12-minute drive of each other.
“Family gatherings often turn into discussion of how business is going,” said Michael. “It’s nice to bounce things off family members you know you can trust. Sometimes, they will give you blunt answers you don’t want to hear.”
“One way I like to look at it,” said Eric, “is we all wear different hats. When I’m dealing with Michael running the company, I take off my brother hat and put on my optical reporter to chief operating officer hat. The upside is you completely trust what they say.”