Contributed by Connor Sakis, MD (cand.)
Dr. Ronald Michels was one of the preeminent ophthalmologists and vitreoretinal surgeons of his time. Born in Detroit, Michigan on September 12, 1943, he spent the majority of his young life in Henderson, North Carolina. At the University of North Carolina, he received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1965 and his medical degree in 1968. Dr. Michels completed his residency training at the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Wilmer Eye Institute in 1972. The following year, he completed fellowship training in vitreoretinal surgery at The University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. He would go on to serve as the deputy director of the Wilmer Institute from 1979 to 1989, and eventually as codirector of the Retina Center at St. Joseph Medical Center in Maryland. Tragically, he passed away on January 15th, 1991, while awaiting a heart transplant.
Dr. Michels’ surgical career was truly extraordinary. On just the first day of his residency, his brilliance was recognized by his instructors. His inaugural patient presentation was one that “… any visiting professor would have been proud to have given”. By the time his training was complete, he was already known as a world-renowned retina specialist. In the 1970s, at the height of the cold war, he was summoned by the Kremlin to operate on a Soviet Leader for macular pucker. Shortly thereafter, he operated on an Afghan resistance hero to save his remaining eye. Dr. Michels was also sought after to treat celebrities, including the boxers Ernie Shavers and Sugar Ray Leonard. Regardless of the patient’s importance or status, he always treated them with the utmost diligence and compassion. His colleague, Dr. Stephen Ryan, wrote that all of Dr. Michel’s patients “…received equal treatment, that is, the best”.
Throughout his career, Dr. Michels authored more than 280 publications. His papers covered a variety of topics including branch vein occlusion, diabetic retinopathy, epiretinal membranes, and more.[1, 2, 3] However, some consider his textbooks Vitreous Surgery (1981) and Retinal Detachment (1990) to be his greatest professional accomplishments. The textbooks were awarded prizes for medical illustration and writing and were voted Medical Book of the Year. [1, 2, 3] Retinal Detachment, which he co-authored with Drs. C.P. Wilkinson and Thomas Rice, has been referred to as both a “masterpiece”  and an “instant classic”. It can be read chapter by chapter or consulted in reference to a specific clinical issue. The second edition of the book, published in 1997, was named in Dr. Michels’ honor.
While in practice, Dr. Michels helped educate the next generation of vitreoretinal surgeons. He instilled his values in all 40 of the fellows that he trained at Johns Hopkins.[3, 6] Dr. Julia Haller, ophthalmologist-in-chief at Thomas Jefferson University’s Wills Eye Institute, fondly remembers her time working under Dr. Michels. He taught her to see patients personally throughout their treatment, from their first visit to their post-operative visits. She also learned to perform exams and procedures methodically, including creating hand-drawn diagrams of each patient’s retina. She, and others who learned from him, can attribute their much of their success to his world-class instruction.
Today, more than 20 years after his passing, Dr. Michels continues to influence the field of vitreoretinal surgery. The Ronald G. Michels Fellowship Foundation, created in his honor, annually awards two vitreoretinal fellows with a cash stipend and a plaque. Known as “The Michels”, it is one of the most prestigious awards in ophthalmology. Through his colleagues, research, textbooks, and foundation, Dr. Michels impacted medicine in a way few others have. He will always be remembered as an incredible physician and person.