A friendship comes into focus

A patient shares his love of paddleboarding with the eye surgeon who restored his vision.

Brent North enjoys few things more than paddleboarding in the Pacific Ocean, following the Laguna Beach coast. A half-mile out from shore, he’ll sometimes catch sight of whales or dolphins.

“The beauty is a big part of the draw,” says the 53-year-old Tustin attorney. “I love the natural wonders all around me.”

That made it particularly frustrating when about four years ago, North began to suffer double vision caused by strabismus, or misalignment of the eyes. At work, he could no longer read the PowerPoint presentations. At the theater, he couldn’t tell how many actors were on the stage. In the ocean, he didn’t know how many whales were in a pod.

“It got pretty dangerous,” he says. “I like to mountain bike, but on rocky trails I couldn’t tell if the rock I was seeing was the rock that was really there.”

Finally, the right doctor

Up to 5% of the population – mostly children but also some adults – suffer from strabismus, which can appear as eyes turned inward, or “crossed,” or outward, or alternating between looking straight ahead or turning. The condition can be caused by problems with the eye muscles, the nerves, or the brain, originating from injuries, family history, or medical conditions, including a stroke.

North went to four doctors, none of whom were able to help him. “Some recommended vision therapy, which was expensive and time-consuming,” he recalls. “It wasn’t working, and I grew suspicious that it never would.”

He was close to despair when a friend recommended Donny Suh, an ophthalmologist at the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute at UCI Health. Luckily for North, Suh is also a strabismologist, a specialist in treating misalignment of the eyes, who had only recently moved to Irvine from Omaha, Nebraska.

“My father retired in Irvine 10 years ago and just raved about the area,” Suh says. “Then I came to visit and got to learn about the city and UCI, and I was just blown away. I was totally impressed by the safety here and how attractive it is, and also with the ophthalmology industry. I love the fact that Allergan and Alcon, these industry giants, are here.”

North, who first met Suh last summer, was similarly enthusiastic about his new doctor.

“He immediately inspired confidence,” says North, who saw Suh last summer. “He said, ‘Brent, I can fix this. This is not a new problem for me.’ I’ve since learned that very few doctors could say these words.”

UC Irvine’s Gavin Herbert Eye Institute offers state-of-the-art services ranging from routine ophthalmic evaluations to surgical care.

A life-changing surgery

In 22 years of practice, Suh says he has performed several thousand surgeries to correct strabismus both in children and adults. He told North that he would need to remove part of one of the muscles attached to his eyeball to correct his misalignment and double vision.

“It was a bit daunting to think of someone cutting into my eye,” North recalls. “But I held my breath and went for it.”

One day after the surgery, North’s vision was back to normal. “The results were immediate and life-changing,” he says. “I recommend that anyone with this condition go see Dr. Suh.”

North and his doctor struck up a friendship, and North wasted little time before inviting Suh and his wife and 21-year-old son to paddleboard with him. They arranged a sunset outing in the calmer waters of the Back Bay, since it was the Suh family’s first time.

Suh says he fell off the board “more times than I could count,” which might have been because he was distracted. Not only was he looking back to make sure that his wife was still vertical, but the scenes, as he recalled, were so spectacular – hundreds of birds flying overhead, stingrays drifting under his board, fish leaping out of the water.

“The view was just breathtaking,” he says. “I’ve never had that perspective.”

“He was kind of like a kid out there,” North recalls.

North had returned his doctor’s favor, in a sense, by opening Suh’s eyes to a new hobby and appreciation of the natural beauty of the Back Bay. The two friends are already planning their next adventure on the water. Suh believes he has found his sea legs and wants to head out on the ocean next time.