25,000 and counting

It’s hard to imagine anything more central to life than good vision. Some people have the excellent fortune of flawless eyesight. For a great many folks, however, problems occur. One of the more common maladies is cataracts.

For more than a quarter of a century, performing the surgery that in most cases can alleviate that condition and restore excellent eyesight has been the mission of Dr. Eric Bligard. The Fort Dodge-based ophthalmologist is affiliated with the Wolfe Eye Clinic, widely recognized as one of the nation’s most advanced sources of eye care.

This month, Bligard, reaches a career milestone. By mid-September he will have performed 25,000 cataract surgeries. He said he has done as many as 1,600 of these procedures in some past years, but now usually averages about 1,100 per year.

Bligard has been part of the Wolfe Eye Clinic team in Fort Dodge since 1986. Most of his patients have been residents of north central Iowa, but through mission trips he has also made better vision a reality for economically disadvantaged people worldwide. Those philanthropic ventures have taken him to an array of nations including China, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines, Tanzania and Thailand. He plans to return to the Philippines in December.

Cataract surgery has been a major focus of Bligard’s career, but he also treats a variety of eye problems.

“I do other things, but (cataract surgery) is certainly the large bulk of what I do,” he said. “I do some plastic surgery around the eyes. I do some glaucoma care. … I do some general comprehensive ophthalmology that is not surgical. The vast bulk of the surgery that I do is cataracts. I used to do Lasik, but I no longer do. One of my partners now comes up from West Des Moines to do that. … I’ve got a lot of Lasik patients out there, but it is no longer part of my practice.”

Bligard said helping people achieve better vision through eye surgery is something that is immensely satisfying both personally and professionally.

“I could not imagine that I could have had a more satisfying career,” he said. “Eye surgery is the absolutely best possible job anyone could ever have when it works. The good news is that it does work the vast majority of the time.”

While cataract surgery has a very high success rate, Bligard said unanticipated complications can and do occur.

“Oftentimes I’ll be able to identify certain characteristics that greatly increase the risks of problems,” he said. “Then, of course, I’ll talk to people about it and tell them. … I still from time to time get into an eye and see something that I have never seen before. … Then I’ll have to use my best judgment. … It’s less than 1 percent, but this operation will jump up and bite you from time to time. Unfortunately, that’s real and that’s a risk that I and the patient together take every time when we embark on this. There’s no avoiding it.”

When the outcome is not what was planned, Bligard said his normally immensely enjoyable and uplifting profession becomes quite unpleasant.

“It may well be one of the worst jobs anyone could have when it doesn’t (work),” he said. “The most difficult part of my life – fortunately rarely – is to have to once in a while sit down and explain to somebody why their procedure didn’t work and what we can do about it or – God forbid – what we can’t do about it and what we have to do going forward to take care of the problems.”

The extensive experience Bligard has with cataract surgery means he is well-qualified to handle any unexpected situations that might occur.

“There aren’t very many people who have had the experience of surgery that I have, but I still run into problems from time to time and so does everybody,” he said. “It’s not a surgeon-related issue. It is an eye-related issue. But it does happen.”

Wolfe Eye Clinic in Fort Dodge

Bligard has spent the bulk of his career in Fort Dodge and said he envisions providing eye care locally and through mission trips long into the future.

I’ve been here for 27 years,” he said. “I’m not retiring anytime soon. I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing. I have no plans to leave.”

One change in recent years, however, is that his practice in the Hawkeye State is primarily confined to Fort Dodge. For many years he traveled to clinic sites throughout north central Iowa. He said Dr. Stephen Fox, also affiliated with Wolfe Eye Clinic, now handles most of the visits to those satellite locations.

“The only place I go now in addition to Fort Dodge is Algona,” Bligard said. “Instead of being in Fort Dodge about half the time and on the road about half the time, which is what I was doing five years ago, I’m in Fort Dodge either in surgery or in clinic every single day except one day every six weeks when I go to Algona.”

Bligard is the only Wolfe physician based in the clinic’s local office, 804 Kenyon Road, Suite 100. Other specialists visit regularly. Retina surgeons are on-site every Tuesday and Thursday.

A cornea specialist is in Fort Dodge every other Friday. An oculoplastics specialist sees patients locally about once a month. Lasik evaluation and postoperative care is done in Fort Dodge, but the surgery is performed in West Des Moines. The Fort Dodge-based staff includes three receptionists, two transcriptionists, three full-time nurses and four ocular technicians.