Years later, the talented doctor opened three private practices in Downtown, Uptown and Brooklyn, with children and adults from across the globe being treated here by nine board-certified, fellowship trained pediatric ophthalmic and strabismus surgeons.
Dr. Steele’s passion for ophthalmology is profound and he has an impressive CV, listed numerous times as a Top Doctor in his speciality of strabismus surgery in both Castle and Connolly’s and New York Magazine’s lists. A graduate from The New York University School of Medicine, he continued his residency in ophthalmology at NYU and completed a fellowship at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.
Downtown interviewed the good doctor about his fascination and love for the human eye, why he decided to open a practice Downtown and his hobby for making fine furniture.
Dr. Mark Steele: I was a third year medical student. I knew that I wanted to be some kind of surgeon but wasn’t sure which speciality to go into. During my clinical rotation at Bellevue Hospital Center, the resident had me examine a patient under the microscope. It was this beautiful velvety curtain and I saw the pupil come alive. That was it, that was the clincher. Purely an aesthetic decision! As a physician, having one organ to attend to is attractive, particularly if it’s one of the coolest, phenomenal structures in the body. A living microprocessor, really.
What does your average day look like?
MS: Most of my time is spent in surgery or in my office seeing patients. I do however also spend a lot of time managing the group and the practice. With nine doctors and 43 employees, it’s needed. But it’s no question that I prefer the operating room. I get to wear pajamas and do arts and crafts all day. I absolutely love the silence of the or, it’s a very zen experience. It’s wonderful seeing a child in the recovery room with perfectly straight eyes and smiling parents.
Are there any cases that have especially touched your heart?
MS: There’s been quite a few cases over the years but I can honestly say that every case touches my heart. I treat the patient as if they were my own child. I’ve never really detached myself from that emotion, every patient stands out in a sense, and I’m emotionally invested.
Tell us about your family
MS: My wife Carole is a retired anesthetist. I met her in an unsavory nightclub on the West Side when I was 27. The club is still around now but serves another function, it’s called The Tunnel. We have a 22-year-old daughter who is a professional ballet dancer in Washington D.C. and a 24-year-old son who is living the dream, working in the tech industry in San Francisco.
Do you have any advice for parents of young children?
MS: The biggest message that I can convey to parents is that their pediatrician must do vision screening tests early on. In the last few years, pediatricians have really gotten on board with doing this. They now possess the technology to detect vision problems early, particularly in preverbal children.
How can we protect our eyes this summer?
MS: There isn’t really any particular way to take care of your eyes, we all have these two little organs that take care of themselves. Certainly, when we age it’s clear that proper nutrition and exercise will help decrease chances of degenerative diseases. If you have diabetes or a family history of eye disease, regular eye exams are very important. The best thing somebody can do is to pick the right parents. If there’s no history of eye disease, you probably won’t get it! Particularly in adults, sunglasses use can diminish the chances of acquiring eye diseases as well.
What about computer screens? Do they affect our eyes?
MS: We do know that the instance of nearsightedness is a bit of an epidemic now, likely greatly due to lots of uninterrupted reading and screen time. Take a break every 30 minutes and look at something in the distance. Young kids under the age of three shouldn’t be exposed to video at all and if they are, it should be slow pace, not overly stimulating videos. It’s not good for their brain development. There has been a lot of discussion regarding the importance of children spending some time each day in sunlight in order to diminish the onset and extent of nearsightedness.
Your practice has three locations in New York City, one of which is in TriBeCa. Why did you choose Downtown?
MS: What’s brilliant about being in this city, is the diversity of patients. We see people from all walks of life and from all across the country, with an international following as well. My original office was uptown but there were several pediatricians in the Downtown area who pleaded with me to open something there.
What do you look for in your fellow doctors, when you consider a new hire?
MS: Within two years of starting the practice, I realized that more pediatric doctors were needed in NYC, so I hired one every two to three years. Now, there’s nine of us. Fortunately, for my most of my hires, I was involved in their training early on at NYU Medical Center, where I teach. I get to see their skill set before I give them an offer and this way, we are able to hire the crème de la crème; they have great technical skills and hands, they’re micro surgeons. But, they also have to love children and be able to talk to the parents and most importantly, they need to be smarter than me, that’s an important pre-requisite.
What’s next for your practice?
MS: Continued growth. We have our eyes on two young ophthalmologists who are interested in pediatrics and we’re interesting in training them. Our group is the largest private practice, pediatric ophthalmology group in the world and we continue to deliver what we think is the best medical and surgical eye care for children. We have perfected eye operations that elsewhere in the region can take over an hour to perform, while we have it down to eight minutes.
What is your favorite thing about Downtown?
MS: Every time I come to work down here and emerge from the Chambers Street subway station, I look around and realize I’m definitely not cool enough to be down here. It’s like a wonderful suburb within New York City, at least in our part of TriBeCa. It’s a residential, real neighborhood and the architecture is absolutely beautiful. I love industrial chic style and we constructed our office with the same design in mind. I’d love to live here but my wife is an uptown girl.
What do you do in your downtime?
MS: I’m actually a fine furniture designer and builder, I have a 1,500 square foot wood and welding shop. I don’t want to play golf, because when you’re done you have nothing to show for it. I don’t like cooking because after you eat the food, it’s gone. What I build is permanent and will hopefully be around for a long time, it’s a physical legacy. It’s hard for me to part with my work, except for family and friends. My favorite piece is probably a replica of an 18th century Philadelphia lowboy. It required a lot of intricate carving, which was very cool. If I am not creating good things in the operating room or in my furniture shop, I get very antsy.
What are you doing this summer?
MS: I’m attending my favorite furniture craftsmanship school in Maine for two weeks and am very much looking forward to a hiking trip to the Canadian Rockies next month. Perhaps my favorite part of the summer though, is having the continued privilege of caring for lots of children’s eyes!
Photos courtesy of Dr. Mark Steele, MD.