In memoriam: Barrett G. Haik, MD, FACS

Dr. Haik

Dr. Haik

Barrett George Haik, MD, FACS, Hamilton Professor of Ophthalmology and director, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center Hamilton Eye Institute (HEI), Memphis, unexpectedly died in his sleep on July 22 while visiting his much-loved family and friends in his hometown of New Orleans, LA. He was 64 years old. A dedicated teacher, insightful researcher, skilled surgeon, and proven cultivator of philanthropy, Dr. Haik leaves a legacy to his students, colleagues, and patients to live by his example: to treat all with kindness, warmth, and respect, and to continue to believe that any vision can be achieved.

Born into ophthalmology

Dr. Haik was born into ophthalmology. The son of George M. Haik, Sr., MD, and Isabelle Saloom Haik, Barrett could count 14 ophthalmologists in his extended family. When reminiscing about his childhood, he once recalled jokingly, “We didn’t go on family vacations; we traveled with my father to visit colleagues in other cities.”

To Barrett, medicine was not a career; it was woven into the fabric of his life. He obtained his undergraduate degree at Centenary College, Shreveport, LA, and worked as a research fellow at the Oak Ridge National Research Laboratory, TN, before earning his medical degree and master’s degree in anatomy from the Louisiana State University (LSU) Medical School, New Orleans. He moved to New York, NY, to complete his residency in ophthalmology at the Edward S. Harkness Eye Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Thereafter, he joined the faculty of Cornell University Medical College and staff of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, soon becoming the associate director of its ophthalmic oncology service.

To Barrett, family and friendships were deep-rooted, so it came as no surprise that in 1986, he returned to New Orleans as a professor of ophthalmology and director of the ophthalmic oncology and orbital disease service at Tulane University. He was soon program and medical director of the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital, and was appointed to serve as Tulane’s first endowed chair in ophthalmology, the George M. Haik, Sr., MD–St. Giles Foundation Professor of Pediatric and Adult Ophthalmic Oncology.

Passion for teaching, humanitarianism

Barrett was a natural mentor, supervising resident physicians from programs at Tulane, Louisiana State University, and the Oschner Foundation. He not only taught residents how to practice medicine, but also nurtured them into compassionate caregivers. Caring for others was Barrett’s life mission, and he found dignity and worth in every person. At Tulane, Barrett would take his pediatric cancer patients to the Audubon Zoo as part of the healing process. To his students or colleagues, he was generous with his time and advice. You left a coaching session with Barrett with renewed appreciation of your abilities and a confidence to pursue what had seemed unattainable.

In 1995 the University of Tennessee Health Science Center recruited Dr. Haik to lead its department of ophthalmology. During his extraordinary 17-year span as department chair, Dr. Haik transformed the small department with four faculty members into the HEI, a world-class eye center that is home to more than 40 faculty members, acclaimed clinical programs, and a strong core of basic scientists.

He also built the ophthalmic oncology service at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, saving the lives of children, both at home and abroad, with ophthalmic tumors. Retinoblastoma is a pediatric eye cancer that once had a mortality rate of 90 percent in low-resource nations, but through Dr. Haik’s outreach initiatives to establish centers of excellence throughout the developing world, that mortality rate is now less than 10 percent in many countries. He equated identifying retinoblastoma in children to saving their lives.

Dr. Haik’s true passion was helping people. For the better part of his career, Barrett traveled semiannually to Panama with colleagues to operate field clinics serving local residents. His commitment to the Panamanian patients and physicians resulted in First Lady Marta Linares de Martinelli bestowing Barrett with the National Award of the Grand Officer in the Order Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 2012. He also was presented with the Keys to Panama City by its mayor.

In 2012, Dr. Haik stepped down as chair of HEI to serve as director and chair emeritus. A prolific fundraiser, Dr. Haik raised more than $100 million for HEI’s research and global eye care programs. His success was due to a rare combination of tremendous intellect, unclouded vision, a gentleman’s demeanor, and unfailing kindness. He exhibited the same warmth and appreciation for everyone—janitors and plumbers, professors and businessmen, students and residents. He led not only through genius and vision, but through the day-to-day example set by how he treated others.

Committed surgeon volunteer

Dr. Haik was a tireless advocate of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) and its mission, voluntarily contributing to a range of ACS committees and governing bodies. Dr. Haik was a leading member of the Board of Regents (2004−2013), the Board of Governors (2000−2005), and the ACS Committee on Emerging Surgical Technology and Education (member, 2006–2007, Chair 2007−2013). He also served on the Advisory Council for Ophthalmic Surgery (1998−2013, Chair, 2002–2004), the Program Committee (2007−2011), the Committee on Education (2007−2013), the Member Services Liaison Committee (Chair, 2012−2013), the Committee on Research and Optimal Patient Care (2004−2012), and the Health Policy Steering Committee (2006−2009).

Dr. Haik also served as an officer or board member of numerous other medical and scientific societies, including the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology, American Eye Study Club, American Society of Ophthalmic Ultrasound, and New York Academy of Medicine. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Memphis Business Journal and the AAO. A prolific author and editor, Dr. Haik was also a highly sought-after lecturer in national and international forums.

Barrett loved caring for patients and teaching others, but he also enjoyed the company of friends and his bloodhound Maddie. Recreationally, he enjoyed golfing and fishing the waters of the Louisiana delta and gulf. He is survived by his companion, Bianca Phillips; son, Christopher Barrett Haik of Quito, Ecuador; daughter, Claire Marie Haik of Philadelphia, PA; two brothers, George M. Haik, Jr., MD, and Kenneth Haik, MD, both of New Orleans; and a sister, Suzanne Haik Terrell.

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