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World-Class Medicine

Humble beginnings didn’t stop this alumna from becoming a leader in her medical specialty. by Jessica L. Bernthal


Pop quiz: After the brain, what is the most complex organ in the human body?

Hint: It’s composed of more than two million working parts, it can process 36,000 bits of information per hour, and we use it at least 10 to 20 times per minute. It isn’t the heart, and it isn’t the lungs. In fact, this organ weighs only 28 grams.

Give up?

The answer is . . . the eye.

And for Dr. Ruth Williams ’82, it’s nothing short of fascinating. “In medical school I was simply stunned by the intricate beauty of the human eye,” says Ruth, an ophthalmologist for more than 20 years.

The former chair of ophthalmology for the American Medical Association (AMA), she’s now the president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO)— the largest national organization of eye doctors representing 31,000 physicians globally. Ruth is also the president of the Wheaton Eye Clinic in Wheaton, Illinois, a nationally recognized eye care facility.

Perhaps more impressive, given her credentials, is Ruth’s humility and accessibility. She still sees patients two days a week, is married to Wheaton classmate Dr. Stephen Gieser ’82 (also an ophthalmologist at Wheaton Eye Clinic), and is the mother of three teenagers.

Growing up in Wyoming, Ruth had not traveled east of Denver before she came to Wheaton College. And even after she earned her medical degree, she was one of very few women in the AMA, which was dominated by Caucasian men 25 to 35 years her senior.

“I was different,” says Ruth, “which actually gave me an advantage.” Singled out by one of her mentors early in her career, she was chosen as a delegate to the AMA representing ophthalmology.

“I was asked to do a job that was too big for me . . . and I did it,” she says with amazement. Assigned to moderate a session on insurance policy, she pulled an “all nighter” researching a topic she previously knew little about.

“I learned so much,” she says. “That’s really what started me down the path of learning about healthcare and public policy.” The experience also dramatically increased her visibility. Elected president of the AAO in 2010, she’s the second woman ever to hold that title.

Ruth hopes to use her position of influence to help cultivate young physicians in the field. “The leaders of tomorrow don’t always look like leaders,” she notes. “Embrace what’s different about you. Those are the very things that make you stand out.”

Locally, Ruth hopes to continue the tradition of quality, affordable care at Wheaton Eye Clinic, at a time of “great tumult in the healthcare arena.”

“I see it as an extraordinary opportunity,” she says. “We’ve always been a special place. But now we have a chance to position Wheaton Eye Clinic as a model for providing efficient, cost-effective eye care—not just in Illinois, but also in the nation.”

Aside from that, Ruth admits she’s not one for setting too many long-range goals. “If I crafted my own life it would have been much different from this,” she laughs. “That’s the God part of the story.”

A Song of the Heart: Scott Iseminger ’90 >

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