Felix N. Sabatés, MD

Dr. Felix N. Sabatés is a nationally known Kansas City ophthalmologist and founder and chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. He also founded the Sabatés Eye Centers and the Eye Foundation of Kansas City. He currently is a Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the UMKC School of Medicine.

Sabatés was born on July 12, 1930, in Camaguey, Cuba, and in 1956 moved to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1963, facilitated by a special Act of Congress. He holds a medical degree from the University of Havana Medical School, Havana, Cuba. He completed post-graduate training in ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, and residency training at the University of New York. He was a Fellow at Retina Service, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and a Fellow at the Retina Foundation, both in Boston,

He taught at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia, Mo, before moving to Kansas City and his post at the UMKC School of Medicine. He has been a visiting professor at many universities in the United States and throughout Europe and South America.

Sabatés resides in Kansas City with his loving partner and wife, Carmen.

Please share an impactful moment that shaped your career. Was there a time in your career when you witnessed history in the making?

Many professionals have mentors in their lifetimes. The most important of mine was Dr. Charles Schepens, a pioneering ophthalmologist who founded the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, now part of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Harvard University Medical School.

When I enrolled in the Basic Science Ophthalmology course at Harvard in October 1956, I was eager to meet Schepens. He was not teaching my course, but was seeing patients and doing surgery at the hospital.

I would come early to the operating suite and stand by quietly and intensely watch his surgeries. One day he looked up and said, "Would you like to help?" Of course, I quickly said yes. From that time on, I was responsible for examining patients prior to surgery, including carefully drawing the diseased retina. I then assisted in surgery, and just like that I became an unofficial fellow in the program!

My Cuban background proved important in getting close to Schepens. As it happened, he was helping develop the Cuban Retina Foundation in Havana. He planned to travel to Cuba to meet with members of the Foundation Board and promote fundraising activities. He invited me to travel with him because he would be doing surgeries at the Eye Department at the University of Havana Medical School, and he wanted me to assist him. There were many willing to work with him in surgery. In fact, they assigned a representative from each of the competing ophthalmology groups in Havana. Schepens smiled and whispered to me, "You are the only one who knows how to assist me, so elbow your way in close to me!"

He would have a lifelong influence on my medical practice, and he became a close personal friend until his death.

In February 2006, I received an invitation to attend the ceremony where Schepens would receive the French Legion of Honor Award for his work in the French underground in WWII. I had been convalescing from craniotomy surgery to drain a traumatic subdural hematoma. Schepens and his wife Cette called frequently to check on my medical status. My wife and I decided to surprise them and attend the event, which was held at the French consulate in Boston the evening of March 7, 2006.

After the ceremony, attended by a small group, we returned to his home in Nahant. A bottle of champagne was opened and a toast was made. Before departing, I asked him if he would be attending the ARVO annual research meeting. While maneuvering his wheelchair, the 94-year-old responded, "Well, maybe." Four days later he died at home. 

What career accomplishment provides you with the greatest sense of satisfaction?

Originally, I was going to return to Havana, Cuba to educate and carry on the principles that Dr. Schepens taught, primarily to Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

Unfortunately, when Cuba fell to communism, I didn't have much choice but stay in this country.

With the end of my fellowship nearing, it became increasingly important for me to find a way to get a medical license in the United States. Legally, I had entered the country on a student visa. I was considered a "parolee," which was an alien allowed to stay in the U.S. due to the Cuban crisis.

There was a special provision by the American Board of Ophthalmology that doctors from Latin America could take the specialty board exam for ophthalmology after completion of their training in the U.S. I passed all the examinations, but I was still discouraged and I saw no way to get a medical license. Massachusetts and other states did not allow for parolees and foreign nationals to become licensed doctors.

One of the examiners, Dr. John Buesseler, asked me if I would be interested in working at the University of Missouri-Columbia's new Department of Ophthalmology, where he was the founding chairman. Buesseler said that serving at a state university medical school would qualify me to sit for a state board exam to get a license.

There was an increased recognition of the need for, and quality of, Schepens-trained retina surgeons - a new specialty in ophthalmology. There were very few Schepens fellowship-trained retinal surgeons in the country willing to go to a small department in Missouri.

To my great dismay, a few weeks after establishing my family in Missouri, the state legislature passed a law stating that only U.S. citizens could get a medical license. I was very disappointed; I did not want to continue having to have licensed doctors sign off on my surgeries.

In the end, an act of Congress was required to get me licensed! U.S. Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri proposed a bill stating that the eye services I provided in Missouri were unique and merited citizenship and a medical license.

The bill won final approval on June 20, 1962. Ironically, it finally arrived on President Kennedy's desk in October in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy signed the bill to make me a citizen even as he was weighing a possible invasion of my home country. Receiving my citizenship through an act of Congress was an honor.

In 1985 I conducted an interview with Dr. Charles and Cette Schepens. I invited Dr. Alice McPherson to participate. Dr. Schepens mentioned he started a fellowship in 1949 that involved 6 months of training.

His first fellow was Dr. Grinolo from Italy. The second two residents were Taylor Smith, MD, and Sam Adams, MD, and the third was Harold Pierce, MD, from John Hopkins. He encouraged Edward Norton, MD, to participate. Dr. Schepens mentioned that Dr. Norton worked so hard that he ended up in the hospital during his training.

In the early 60's, I finished my 5-year commitment to the University of Missouri-Columbia and was fully licensed in Florida.

I met with Ed Norton while looking for new opportunities, Ed smiled and said, “Felix, there are only two qualified retina surgeons in the state of Florida. Those two are myself and my associate! Come there's room for everyone.”

My wife had other plans. She felt Kansas City was a better place to raise a family. I agreed and most of my remaining career was in Kansas City. I developed the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City based on the principles of Dr. Charles Schepens. We accepted all patients whether or not they had the ability to pay. I then created a foundation without interference from University politics. I was able to practice until I was 86 years old, and I try to keep up to date with courses available online.

What do you feel is the most significant development or change in the practice of retina?

Fortunately, due to my age (soon to be 92), I was able to witness most of the changes in the practice of retina -- one of the most important being the focus on not only clinical research, but also basic research. Dr. Charles Schepens was a premier pioneer in basic research and making it international.

Can you share any advice to future generations of retina specialists?

My advice for future generations is to always place the patient first. Gratefulness, respect, and financial benefit will follow.

How do you imagine the practice of retina will change by 2040?

With the internationality and availability of clinical and basic research mixed with technological advances, the hope is that the threat of blindness will continue to decrease or be eliminated.

I have been a member of every society and participated actively when I was practicing; I give credit to the ASRS for emphasizing internationality and communication in the field of clinical and basic research

Our sincere thanks to Dr. Sabatés for sharing his retina reflections.

(Retina Reflection published 2022)

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