Mind, Body & Spirit

Tucson eye doctor reflects on Giffords surgery

It was probably not what Dr. Lynn Polonski had in mind for his 15 minutes of fame. It must have been a bittersweet moment when he found himself at the bedside of America’s most famous Congresswoman, ready to operate and relieve some of the damage caused by the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson.

Polonski, the son of Holocaust survivors, was born and raised in Omaha, Neb., attended the University of California in San Diego and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. During his residency, he studied ophthalmology, and received specialty training in oculoplastics, plastic reconstructive surgery around the face and eyes.

In October 2000, he joined the University of Arizona as an assistant professor of comprehensive ophthalmology and ocular plastics. In addition to teaching and tending to patients, Polonski researches glaucoma and surface ocular disease. He’s part of the cranial facial trauma and facial plastics team at University Medical Center, the only level one trauma center in Southern Arizona.

UMC was the logical place for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to end up after the Jan. 8 attack. “She was assessed here in the trauma bay at University Medical Center,” says Polonski, who was called in by Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery.

It was a sad affair, he says, “but you focus on the job in front of you. You stabilize the patient, you do what you can to help her survive. I was there during the craniotomy, when a portion of the skull was removed. The bleeding needed to be stopped, and we had to decompress the right orbit. That all happened during the first hour after she was brought in.”

During the procedure, “we just focused on her as a patient, as you would do with any patient, regardless of who they are. As a doctor you just want the best possible outcome, and you don’t really think about who is lying there,” says Polonski. “It’s only after the fact that everything starts to sink in, and you become enlightened about the positive impact Gabrielle Giffords has had on the people in Arizona. People have so much love for her. The interesting thing is, she has been of great assistance in helping fund and develop this trauma center, never guessing, of course, that one day she would need this level of care herself.”

Polonski performed more ocular surgery on Giffords during the week after the shooting when her orbital roof was reconstructed, using titanium plates. The congresswoman is now recovering at a rehabilitation center in Houston.

In Tucson, life may not go back to normal anytime soon, but the city has come together during this tough time, says Polonski. “We are healing, and trying our best. The rest of the country can come together at the same time. To listen to President Obama’s address was just amazing; here in Tucson, it really touched our hearts.”

Polonski recently opened a private clinic, Catalina Eye Care, P.C., which he runs in addition to his position at the UA.

Annette van de Kamp-Wright is the editor of the Jewish Press in Omaha, Neb., where this story first appeared on Feb. 11.