Alum Gives Back to Enhance Training for Today's Ophthalmology Residents

Friday, February 22, 2019
Dr. Michael Vu and his son, Dr. Daniel Vu

Back when Michael Vu, MD was an ophthalmology resident at Duke in the 1980s, trainees didn’t have a dedicated space to practice their surgical skills. When an opportunity to try out a new instrument or technique arose, Vu and his fellow residents would search for a quiet place, scrounge up a few pig eyes, and practice wherever they could.

As Vu’s son, Daniel, now a third-year Duke ophthalmology resident, can attest, things have come a long way since the elder Vu’s days as a Duke medical student and resident. For many years the ophthalmology residents have had a Microsurgical Education Laboratory (also known as a “wet lab”). But Michael Vu, a successful ophthalmologist in private practice in southern California, knew the facility wasn’t up to par for a program of Duke’s national stature. So last year, he made a gift to the Department of Ophthalmology to create an enhanced laboratory where burgeoning ophthalmology residents, as well as fellows and faculty, can hone their surgical skills, practice new techniques, and build their confidence before operating on patients.

“Every ophthalmologist remembers his or her first few cases, and I think it’s important to start off right,” says Vu. “I owe my medical success to my training at Duke, and I felt that it was time to give back.”

Rather than simply renovate the longtime space in the Eye Center’s original Wadsworth Building, Vu’s generous gift allowed Duke to create an entirely new Microsurgical Education Laboratory in the Hudson Building (to which Vu also donated), right down the hall from the residents’ headquarters. The brand-new space, which opened this summer, is equipped with state-of-the-art instruments, several bench spaces and microscopes, and ample opportunities for residents, fellows, and faculty to refine their surgical skills.

“We are incredibly excited to have a new wet lab for our trainees that fosters learning, collaboration, and research on new techniques and instruments,” says Chief Ophthalmology Resident Tanya Glaser, MD. “Dr. Vu’s generosity has given us the means to optimize the way that we train residents for surgery.”

For Vu, the gift was an opportunity to give back to the place where his career began. “Duke gave me the surgical skills and the mindset to be successful in ophthalmology, so this was my way of returning the favor,” he says.

The fact that Vu ended up at Duke for his medical training is a story in itself. After immigrating to the U.S. from Vietnam as a teenager, Vu grew up in New York City and attended Columbia University, where he studied biomedical engineering with the intent of going to medical school somewhere in the Northeast. Duke wasn’t even on his radar, but a friend encouraged him to apply. Once accepted, he looked into the southern school and decided to say yes—without even visiting the campus. Fortunately, once he arrived in Durham, he knew he had made the right choice.

Vu is impressed with the growth of Duke Ophthalmology over the past few decades, beginning with the addition of the Albert Eye Research Institute and later the Hudson Building. The new Microsurgical Education Laboratory continues that growth and bolsters Duke’s reputation as one of the nation’s top ophthalmology training programs.

“The education of our residents and fellows is one of our highest priorities,” says Pratap Challa, MD, director of the ophthalmology residency program. “Duke’s tradition of excellence in training individuals like Michael and Daniel Vu has been instrumental in distinguishing our Eye Center as a top institution defining the future of ophthalmology. This new lab will help us maintain and strengthen our leading-edge residency program and attract and train the best and the brightest medical school graduates.”

This story originally appeared in the 2019 issue of VISION magazine. Read more.