The video camera closes in on the eye of the patient, ready for surgery. The soothing voice of the doctor is heard as he makes sure the patient is relaxed, that the topical anesthesia has taken effect. A small instrument moves gently towards the iris, as a radical new surgical method is demonstrated by Richard Fichman, M.D.
Known in the U.S. and around the world for his innovations in ophthalmology, Dr. Fichman developed cataract surgery without needles, done in conjunction with another’s invention that dissolves the cataracts with sound waves. The patient remains awake, without pain, during the entire procedure. “Dr. Fichman is a pioneer in ophthalmic topical anesthesia,” said Dr. Robert H. Osher of Cincinnati, Ohio, who produced the video, entitled “International Advances in Phacoemulsification.” Says Dr. Fichman, a West Hartford, Connecticut resident who now heads the Fichman Eye Center in Manchester, Connecticut, “I have thousands of grateful patients who can see immediately after surgery.”
Fichman didn’t always plan to become a doctor. But classes he took at Tunxis Community College (now Tunxis Community College) in Farmington in spring 1974 marked his first step towards medical school, and ultimately to his career as an ophthalmologist.
“I’d already received my B.A. degree in history with a theatre minor from Central Connecticut State University (CCSU),” he remembered. “And I’d done all the course work towards a master’s in speech pathology at CCSU when I found I was still unsure what I wanted to do.” After a trip to Mt. Snow to clear his mind, Fichman came back with his decision. He would pursue a medical career.
“I’d never taken science courses, but to progress towards medical school I needed one year of science,” he said. “I chose Tunxis Community College because I was working during the day and the class times were convenient. I could handle the tuition, too.”
“The Tunxis biology department was very good, very dedicated,” he recalled. “They knew that I wanted to be a doctor and they pushed me in the direction I needed to go.”
While he enjoyed chemistry and said his statistics class was excellent, Fichman remembers best his biology professor, Analee Gelman Stone. “She was excellent, and she spurred me on to do my best,” he said. Stone, who retired from Tunxis in 1995, is now a professor emeritus.
Along with his biology courses, Fichman took general chemistry and statistics at Tunxis. “One of the interesting things I recall about Tunxis was that the students were very serious and motivated,” he said. “I was pitted against some pretty good ones at Tunxis—the competition was good. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I came out of a course with an “A”.
From Tunxis Fichman went on to complete his science requirement at CCSU, then entered Chicago Medical School, receiving his doctorate in 1979. “They were pushing specialties at that time, but I still wasn’t sure what area I wanted to concentrate on,” he said. Even though the “rotating internship” had become less common at that time, he was offered one at St. Mary’s Hospital and Medical Center in San Francisco, California. Since St. Mary’s was located down the street from the University of California, San Francisco, Hospital, Fichman was able to work with a group of ophthalmologists in private practice there. Excited by the operations he watched, he choose ophthalmology for himself.
From 1980-1982 Fichman did a residency at University of Arizona Health Center, Tucson, Arizona, and was chief resident at State University/Kings County Hospital, New York City, from 1982-1983. His quick-rising career took him next to positions in Brooklyn, New York as attending physician at King’s County Medical Center; clinical instructor at Down State Medical University; and chief of ophthalmology at Wood Hull Medical Center.
“I decided to Come home’ in 1984,” remarked Fichman, who then became chief of ophthalmology at the VA Medical Center in Newington, Connecticut. That same year he went into private practice, opening the Fichman Eye Center. Over 100 doctors from the U.S. and around the world have visited Fichman to observe his cataract and laser vision correction operations.
When he’s not seeing patients at his center, Fichman is producing infomercials with WTWS-TV26 in New London. “What differentiates my infomercials from many others is that we are not canned,” he said. “In one episode we had a party for my patients and taped them as they chatted about their experiences.”
Fichman still finds time about once every six weeks to travel with colleagues to the Dominican Republic to provide laser vision correction to about 15 patients who could not otherwise afford the sight-saving procedure.
“My grandparents were penniless immigrants when they came to this country, but their son was able to do anything,” said Fichman, as he looked back on what led up to his own success. “I feel very good about America and Tunxis is what’s good about America. No matter how meager your background you can get an affordable education—the tuition at the community colleges are by far the lowest in the state.”
“I’m a prime example of how education can enable you to do whatever you choose to do,” he continued. “Go to Yale? Sure, but something is gained in the struggle at a community college. Tunxis students are struggling but always motivated. Even starting with very little, you can still do it.”