Jeffrey Gazzara, DO, was 12 when he first noticed a problem with his vision: During night baseball games, he couldn’t see the ball as well as his teammates. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which causes gradual vision loss, starting with peripheral and night vision. Dr. Gazzara is now legally blind, but that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dream of becoming a sports medicine physician.
In this edited interview, Dr. Gazzara, currently a resident in neuromusculoskeletal medicine at Mercy Health Muskegon in Muskegon, Michigan, explains how he uses touch to treat musculoskeletal issues and how his experiences have shaped his approach to medicine.
How has your vision changed since your initial diagnosis?
At first, I was very functional—I played high school football and ran track, so a lot of my peers had no idea I had any vision problems. It wasn’t until college that I started having trouble reading and using a computer. I still read OK, but the text needs to be in the right color scheme. My biggest limitation is lighting—because things are darker for me, I need a lot of light.
You rely on your sense of touch to treat patients—how does that work?
Just talking to patients about their history gives you so much information. When I conduct a physical exam, I use landmarks to guide me—when I listen to a person’s heart, I use my other hand to be sure I’m listening at the second rib. By putting my hand on a patient’s shoulder, I know where I am on their thorax. If I’m treating someone who has musculoskeletal dysfunction, I feel for tissue texture changes, which I’d be doing by touch even if my vision were normal.
People who have all five senses tend to rely on their vision a lot, so I think there’s a misconception that perfect vision is essential. Touch can help bridge the gaps.
If I need visual confirmation during an exam, I ask a nurse to provide a second set of eyes. I also consult with my supervising physician on every patient I treat, which is standard procedure for all medical residents.
As a physician, do you draw on your own experience as a patient?
Yes, definitely. I understand the importance of listening and being sympathetic to what patients are going through—and sometimes their challenges are very familiar to me.
For example, during my rotation in physical medicine and rehab, I was figuring out accommodations to help people navigate their daily lives, which I’ve developed in my own life to manage my vision loss. My patients would explain why certain activities were difficult for them, and I would say, “I totally get that.”
What’s been the hardest thing about your medical career so far?
Every step of the way has been very difficult. I did really well in my preclinical years of med school after making some adaptations and learning how to study. During my clinical years, I was rotating in a different hospital every month. That was difficult because I use a special computer system and I had to reconfigure it to access each hospital’s electronic medical record system. I never had much difficulty treating patients, though.
Why did you choose osteopathic medicine?
I was really drawn to the emphasis on treating patients holistically. I’ve seen firsthand how that mindset makes DOs and osteopathic medical students willing to go above and beyond to help others. There’s a great sense of community in the osteopathic medical profession.