All in the Family: Three Doctors, Two Generations, One Shared Passion for Saving Sight
As of August 2016, there are now three Dr. Fullers at Texas Retina Associates. Timothy Fuller, MD, has joined his father Dwain Fuller, MD, and brother Christopher Fuller, MD, at the practice. All are Texas natives, and none originally set out to become a physician, let alone a retina specialist. Each has paved his own path driven by a common desire to serve others and protect vision.
Dwain Fuller planned to be a chemical engineer but was persuaded by a college freshman chemistry professor to consider medicine instead. Although he continued as a chemistry major, he soon became a pre-medical student and went on to earn his medical degree at Baylor in Houston. During his internship in Virginia, he met his future wife Patsy during a cardiac arrest on the neurosurgery floor where she served as head nurse. After two years of internal medicine training, Dr. D. Fuller spent two years in the Army, including a year in Vietnam. A three-year residency in ophthalmology in San Francisco followed as did his marriage to Patsy.
From there, Dr. D. Fuller pursued his fellowship in retina and vitreous diseases at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, where he studied under the pioneers of the newly emerging technique of vitrectomy — a surgical treatment for retinal detachment. In 1977, after serving on the staff at Bascom Palmer for two years, he was invited by the three founding physicians of Texas Retina in Dallas to join their practice. He welcomed the opportunity to return home to Texas to raise his young family which grew to include four sons.
Dr. Dwain Fuller loved his work, but he loved his family even more.
“Dwain put in long hours but no matter how busy we were, we felt it was important that we all have dinner together, even if it was late,” explains Patsy. “It was our way of staying connected.”
In addition to family dinners, Dr. D. Fuller would also involve his boys in his work, talking to them about what he believed a good doctor should do and even taking them along on Saturday morning post-op rounds at the hospital.
“Dad was dedicated to his work and a bit of a workaholic,” recalls his youngest son Dr. Timothy Fuller. “I remember wandering into his room at night and just watching him look through medical slides and work on presentations. It seemed like another world to me, but he would always take the time to share with me, explaining what he was doing and why.”
Older brother Dr. Christopher Fuller remembers those days as well. “At the time, I felt like I was being dragged along, but in retrospect, I realized how much I learned and emulated him. He instilled in us the importance of good communication, listening and being accessible to those you serve.”
Despite all of this, the boys were not initially influenced to follow in their father’s footsteps.
“I never thought either of them would be doctors,” says Patsy. “We always encouraged them to find their own paths.”
The First Born — Christopher
The oldest of Dwain and Patsy’s four sons, Christopher was determined to chart his own course.
“He was strong-willed from a young age, and we didn’t always see eye to eye” says Dr. D. Fuller.
Dr. C. Fuller concurs, “I spent most of my life doing the opposite of my dad.”
Young Christopher had a love of writing and a spirit for wanderlust. The editor of his high school newspaper, he originally wanted to pursue journalism but says his father dissuaded him. He ended up at Davidson College in North Carolina where he majored in Spanish.
“I sort of backed into medicine,” Dr. C. Fuller shares. “I took the MCAT and did well so I decided to give it a try.”
He enrolled in medical school at Texas Tech in Lubbock, but had no intention of studying ophthalmology. When asked how he ended up there, he says, “I guess I just heard the siren call of my father.”
After completing his ophthalmology residency at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Dr. C. Fuller spent a year with ORBIS International, working on their Flying Eye Hospital — the world’s only teaching hospital housed in an airplane. Their mission is to treat avoidable blindness while creating sustainable, quality eye care in underserved areas like Africa, India and China.
“It allowed me to combine my love for medicine, service and travel,” says Dr. C. Fuller, reflecting on the experience.
He then completed his fellowship at Texas Retina Associates. Along the way, he met and married his wife, Seunghee, a family practice physician and also a Texas native. They now have three children. Dr. C. Fuller practiced in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then Houston before joining Texas Retina Associates in 2015, where he serves their Lubbock office.
“Moving to Lubbock was the perfect balance,” says Dr. C. Fuller. “I could work for and with people I know and trust while still maintaining a bit of independence and not having my dad looking right over my shoulder.”
The Youngest — Timothy
Despite shadowing his father in clinic and the operating room, Timothy, the youngest of the four boys, did not want to be a doctor either. He developed a passion for community service in high school and like his oldest brother, went on to Davidson College to study Spanish. While there, he volunteered at a local health clinic, providing translation services for the physicians and staff. He also spent a semester studying in Madrid, Spain, and then a summer studying and working in a hospital in Kikuyu, Kenya. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Spanish with a pre-medical focus, he began teaching English as a second language (ESOL).
“My interactions with patients in college inspired me to consider medicine after all,” says Dr. Timothy Fuller. “I was drawn to it by the humanitarian aspect.”
He earned his medical degree and completed his ophthalmology training at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, the same community where older brother Dr. C. Fuller was in private practice. The two even ended up living in the same building, and Dr. T. Fuller was able to do one of his rotations in his brother’s office.
“Like brothers, we frustrated each other growing up, but I always looked up to Chris,” recalls Dr. T. Fuller. “I still remember the very first night I was on call. I had a challenging retinal detachment case, and Chris was the first person I called to consult.”
Like his brother, Dr. T. Fuller completed his medical retina fellowship at Texas Retina Associates with his father. After that, he decided to pursue an ocular oncology fellowship at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, where he trained under international eye cancer research and treatment leaders Jerry A. Shields, MD, and Carol Shields, MD.
Soon after completing that second fellowship, Texas Retina Associates asked him to join the practice as well, which he did in August 2016.
“There is something special about being trained by and working alongside your father — a different type of feedback that is invaluable,” shares Dr. T. Fuller.
Making Their Own Marks
Despite arriving at the same end destination, Dr. C. Fuller and Dr. T. Fuller continue to make their own individual marks.
Dr. C. Fuller has a passion for the surgical aspect of retina care. He has also honed his creative and journalistic skills to contribute toward education and advancement in the field through the development of surgical retina videos, contributing to the American Society of Retinal Specialists Innovative Surgical Video Series and creating the REFLEX retina video website https://vimeo.com/channels/retflix.
Meanwhile, Dr. T. Fuller does not perform surgery but has found his niche in treating ocular melanoma, a rare but potentially deadly disease.
The two, along with their father, build off their unique strengths and specialties, sharing challenging patient cases and learning from each other.
“This continual learning ultimately benefits our patients in addition to helping us each grow as physicians,” explains Dr. C. Fuller. “I treasure this.”
Despite their differences, all three Dr. Fullers share the same guiding principal — to serve and help others.
“My philosophy of practicing medicine has always been to do things for people not to people,” explains Dr. D. Fuller.
“We taught our boys to respect differences, to care for people, and to remember that each person they meet has value,” adds Patsy.
It appears Dr. C. Fuller and Dr. T. Fuller took these beliefs to heart.
“I enjoy performing surgery, but what I love most about my practice are the relationships I develop with my patients,” says Dr. C. Fuller. “I want my patients to have direct access to me and to provide me with feedback as well.”
He even provides his personal cell phone to all his patients and credits his mother and father for the “concierge” approach he takes to medicine.
“I learned this concern and empathy from my dad. I remember listening to him call each of his patients the day after surgery to see how they were doing,” he shares. “And my mother instilled in me the importance of service and concern for others.”
Dr. T. Fuller shares this love and “calling” for serving others.
“What I enjoy most is providing patients with hope, especially those with eye cancer,” he says. “We have come such a long way with treatments, and I love that I can give my patients more life and a better quality of life.”
The Fuller Future
Looking ahead, all three Fuller physicians are excited about the future of retina care and their work together at Texas Retina Associates.
“Just like vitrectomy was a breakthrough early in my career, the field of retina has made similar strides in recent years with sight-saving injections and other treatments, especially for age-related macular degeneration,” explains Dr. D. Fuller. “Now we have promising new research and developments in stem cells as a possible treatment option as well as implantable chips and devices.”
Dr. T. Fuller agrees. “Before 2004, they could do nothing for macular degeneration, and now we can help many patients maintain functional vision. Pharmaceutical interventions have been a game changer. Currently work is being done to develop longer-acting treatments. And in the field of ocular oncology, there is the potential for new genetic treatments that can specifically target cancers and stop them.”
Dr. C. Fuller shares this sentiment as well. “Thirty years ago my dad started down this path, and the advances he has seen have been jaw-dropping. With our aging population and the value we all place on our sight, I know our field will continue to advance.”
And what about the possibility of additional Dr. Fullers in the future?
“I will tell my children the same thing I tell the medical students I mentor: You must have a passion for medicine in order to pursue it as a career,” explains Dr. C. Fuller.
Dr. T. Fuller, who has no children yet, says he will encourage any future Fullers to do what makes them happy. “I will tell them, at the end of the day, no matter what you do, just make the world better.”
Sounds like the apples didn’t fall too far from the tree.
A Shared Mission
In addition to working together, Dwain Fuller, MD; Christopher Fuller, MD; and Timothy Fuller, MD, also share a love of travel and a call to mission work.
Dr. T. Fuller has participated in medical mission trips to Guatemala and Kenya, and spent a week with ORBIS in Panama. Recently, he traveled to Haiti with Texas Retina Associates colleague Gary Edd Fish, MD, and plans to continue his mission work.
In addition to the year he spent on the Flying Eye Hospital, Dr. C. Fuller maintains a great interest in medical service travel and will be going to India soon. During his ORBIS year, he invited his father to join him on medical trips to Vietnam and Syria.
“It was a way I could give back to my dad,” reflects Dr. C. Fuller.
And his dad treasures the Syria trip in particular, especially the memories they made and the work they did together. “It was the best week of my life,” shares Dr. D. Fuller.