There's a family feel to the Southern Eye Center (motto: "Your eyes are everything"), an ophthalmology clinic in the small town of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Patients greet staff in the cheery waiting rooms like old friends ("Are you still seein’ that policeman, darlin'?"); grateful testimonials are displayed on a pinboard ("Thank you for saving my eyes you were cool," from Ashley, aged seven). The genial character of the place is personified in its owner, Dr. Lynn McMahan, 60. His scrubs are adorned with blue hearts or green frogs; he hums pop tunes or sings "Amazing Grace" during operations — with particular emphasis on the line "was blind, but now I see." "What we aim to do here is take the dread out of surgery," he says in his laconic southern drawl. "In fact, we prefer the term 'procedure.' There's no E.R. drama and blood and people shouting; you just walk in, lay down, get some drops put in, and 10 minutes later you're on your way home to cook supper." He smiles. "It's pretty fulfilling work."
McMahan founded the Center in his hometown some 30 years ago in an old fried-chicken store: "Just me and a technician," he says. "There was a need for eye specialists; the nearest were about 100 miles away. I learned the rudiments of laser surgery and brought the first laser treatments to this area." Now he and his six partners, all experts in their field — McMahan on cataracts, Francis Soans on glaucoma, C. Byron Smith on corneas, etc. — operate from a custom-built clinic with a staff of 85; they perform around 6,000 operations a year on patients from all over the Gulf Coast. "I was surprised at the initial growth, but now I've cometo expect it," says McMahan. "With medicine, it seems the market is never saturated."
But there's more to McMahan's practice than the rigors of the marketplace. He might enjoy all the trappings of the successful surgeon — he's lectured abroad on his techniques, met Nelson Mandela and the first President Bush and commutes in his helicopter when the mood takes him — but he sees a moral dimension to his work. "We have a rule here that we never turn anybody away," he says. "In my first year of practice, I had a lady come here with glaucoma. Several years later, she came back and she was blind. I said, 'Why didn't we see you sooner? ' She said she had no insurance and couldn't afford it. If I'd seen her in time, I could have saved her sight. And I never wanted that on my conscience again." He shakes his head. "Ever."
To that end, the Center holds twice-yearly Gift Of Sight days, where eye exams and "procedures" are provided free for the poor and homeless, "people who fall through the healthcare cracks, for whatever reason, and who really need us," according to McMahan. A similar generosity of spirit prevailed after Hurricane Katrina: The Center (which, two years on, is still missing part of its roof that was blown off by the storm) loaded up two vans with equipment and drove through the devastated area in the perilous days after the storm hit. "We were able to treat some people in the shelters whose eyes had been damaged by the flying debris," says McMahan. "Then we ran a bus down there to bring people back to the Center who needed help. Their records had been lost, they had no cards, wallets, nothing. So we just told them to walk on in and we did what we could to help."
The Center's charitable activities mean that it is the only clinic ever to be awarded the state governor's GIVE award for excellence in volunteerism; the Gift of Sight program also won USA Todays National Make a Difference Day Award in 2002. For McMahan, the flexibility inherent in running a small business is key to his, well, vision. "We've been able to pioneer and test out new techniques in a way that larger establishments wouldn't have been able to," he says. "And we've also been able to maintain the personal touch with our employees and patients."
That's why, despite the fact that he's approaching retirement age, you'd have to look at McMahan for a long time before the word "jaded" ever sprang to mind. "I'm excited almost every day that I go to work," he says. "The beauty of eye surgery is that the results are almost instantaneous and you have very few failures. We don't think of our patients as cash-flow; in fact, I sometimes find it hard to think of us as a 'business' in the traditional sense. Where else can you take a blind person at 8 a.m. and have them out the door by nine with their vision back and loving you for the rest of your life? I get hugs, cards, and thank-you notes. And I get paid for it too!"