Coming full circle: Former ophthalmology patient works in the operating room, alongside the doctor who treated her

Two women wearing masks
Witt and ophthalmology resident Breanna Aldred, MD, who assisted in surgery.

Fifteen years after her first strabismus surgery, Veronica Witt still finds herself in the UW Health Eye Care Clinic every week. But these days, it’s for a much different reason.

The 40-year-old year old from Appleton, Wisconsin has been a regular in the eye clinic since 2008, when she moved to Madison and was hired as a receptionist to support the pediatric ophthalmology team. She recalls that, at the time, she knew she had strabismus, a condition in which the eyes do not look in the same direction due to weak or misaligned muscles.

“Double vision was an occasional, but regular, part of my life at that time,” Veronica said. “My first day on the job, I laughed when I got off the elevator because I saw the sign for the adult strabismus clinic and realized then I should probably learn what was going on with my eyes. That’s exactly what I did.”

Her initial exam revealed superior oblique palsy, a congenital condition that worsens with age. The condition brought her under the care of pediatric ophthalmologist, David Gamm, MD, PhD. In addition to his career as a pediatric ophthalmologist, Dr. Gamm is a professor with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute. He’s also a world-renowned researcher, known for developing cell-based therapies to combat retinal degenerative diseases.

He performed Veronica’s first corrective surgery in 2009.

Male doctor with female patient in recovery room.
Dr. Gamm and Witt, 2022

“I had so many questions as I tried to understand what the muscles in my eyes were doing wrong,” Veronica said. “Dr. Gamm was the perfect person for me because he loves to explain things. I’d think of a question and email Dr. Gamm. He’d email me right back.”

“At the time I didn’t think about how amazing that was, with as busy as he was,” she continued. “But he was so responsive to my questions. I really appreciated that going into having my first major surgery. He made me feel a lot more comfortable because I knew I was in such good hands.”

The procedure successfully resolved most of Veronica’s double vision, except for when she was reading.

“I knew I wouldn’t simply wake up and have everything be perfect,” she said. “My brain had learned to compensate for my strabismus over the years and when we all of a sudden changed it, my brain needed to catch up.”

In 2012, Veronica decided to undergo her second surgery. At this point, she was working as a unit clerk at UW Health while studying to become an ophthalmic technician, which would prepare her to support and assist eye care providers.

This surgery was also a success, though eventually Dr. Gamm noticed Veronica wasn’t healing as well as they had planned. So, a few months later, she had a third surgery.

It was nearly a decade later, in 2022, before Veronica underwent her final surgery. By this time, she was working as a Certified Ophthalmic Surgical Assistant, helping the pediatric ophthalmology surgeons in the operating room. She credits the immense, positive impact Dr. Gamm had on her with inspiring her to pursue the extra training.

“One of my very first days in that role, I assisted Dr. Gamm in the operating room,” Veronica said. “It was an incredible experience. It was great to be on the other side of the operating table and learn the technical skills that were involved in my own cases. However, I noticed while looking through my loupes, that my double vision persisted.”

So, in August of that year, she decided to do one more surgery.

“This is the best I’ve ever been,” Veronica said. “I am nearly symptom free and can read, work and assist without any issues. It’s amazing!”

“Not everyone will go through that many surgeries,” she continued. “But it was the nature of the beast for me. I knew going into it that I was probably going to need more than one surgery. So, I was prepared.”

“Veronica has always been a very smart person, a skilled technician, and a good friend to everyone in the clinic and operating room, including me,” Dr. Gamm said. “What I also learned over the course of caring for her eyes is that she is undaunted. She has a great sense of humor, too, and a long attention span. Those are three good traits to have when undergoing three eye surgeries with all those pre- and post-operative discussions with me.”

Veronica credits her personal experiences with making her better able to assist her patients, especially other adults who are going through the surgical process.

“When I share my story with patients, it opens the door for them to ask questions. It provides that layer of personal connection and they often feel relieved to talk to someone who experienced what they are going through. I can reassure them.”

“It’s hit me now,” Veronica said with a smile. “I’ve come full circle. I was a patient so many times and now here I am assisting with the same surgeon. It’s really cool.”