The Sight Stuff

Vermont’s first LASIK surgeon also created the state’s first ambulatory surgery center

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

lasik0315Ophthalmologist Juli Larson came to Vermont following her residency in 1993 to take over the practice of Thomas Kleh, M.D., who was retiring. Her thriving South Burlington practice, Vermont Eye Laser, is part of a larger entity, New England Vision Correction, which she founded with another physician.

Vermont Eye Laser (VEL) at New England Vision Correction books more than 200 rooms a year at the Marriott TownePlace Suites in Williston. The rooms are for the use of LASIK (laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis) and cataract surgery patients who live over an hour away. “We want them close in the first 24 hours,” says Rand Larson, who adds that VEL has affiliations with providers in Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire. “We once had a person from China.”

Rand is the husband of Juli Larson, M.D., an ophthalmologist and the first person in Vermont to perform LASIK, a type of refractive surgery that reshapes the cornea to correct near- and far-sightedness and astigmatism.

In 2007, she petitioned the state and received a certificate of need (CON) to build an ambulatory surgery center — the first in Vermont. “We were the last state in the country to get an ambulatory surgery center,” she says.

Not for lack of trying; others had attempted to obtain the CON, to no avail. “We had to have not just a conceptual idea, but a property, every plug and sink, all laid out. So we contracted to purchase some property.” That 25,000-square-foot, two-story structure at 1100 Hinesburg Road in South Burlington is now home to Vermont Eye Laser and a hearing center added a couple of years ago — Larson’s milieu on the second floor — and the ambulatory surgery center on the first level, which she spearheaded, joined shortly thereafter by Tom Dowhan, M.D.

“The ambulatory surgery center now has, I believe, seven ophthalmologists that operate there,” she says. “It’s taken a number of years to have people give up their OR time with Fletcher Allen and come over here. The majority of the people who operate here have ownership in it.” Docs in the surgery center are Dowhan, Thomas Cavin, Gregory McCormick, Katherine Lane, Robert McGlynn, and Praven Keshava.

LASIK is Larson’s specialty, filling about half her time, with the other half spent doing cataract work and surgery. She also does general eye care but has backed down on routine eye examinations or evaluations, the bulk of which are now performed by two optometrists, Jennifer DeVita and Lisa Martin-Eriksson, who work with her.

“I made the decision to get my LASIK on fairly short notice before going on a surfing trip, not wanting to struggle to see out in the waves,” says Sam von Trapp, vice president at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. “I was just relieved, blown away by how professional and organized the office is, and, I guess, the simplicity of the process.”

Because his vision problems came on later in life, he says, he never learned to use contact lenses. “I had to deal with my glasses fogging over when I was skiing and doing manual labor in the woods or hunting, so to be suddenly able to go out and have regular sunglasses was amazing.”

That “professional and organized” image the practice presents can be attributed in no small way to Larson’s husband, Rand, a management and marketing consultant whose longtime experience has benefited the practice in multiple ways. “He was in ophthalmology before I was,” she says. “He worked in the medical business end of things for a number of years in sales management, and over the last few years has done more consulting for different practices.”

Rand handles all of Larson’s marketing and keeps his eye on the business end of things. He also designed the facility’s floor plan. “We try to create a different atmosphere from other places,” he says, and points out the waiting room’s plantings, waterfall sounds, and large framed television with changing landscape pictures. Farther inside the facility are specific waiting room areas for patients and their companions, with relaxing colors and floral arrangements, a massage therapist to help patients and their families relax, and arrays of sandwiches and other foods, for example, at what they call the Mountain View Laser Café.

Larson did not fall far from her family tree when she chose to study medicine. Her father is a psychiatrist who, she says, “still does work a little bit,” and her mother was a certified registered nurse anesthetist. She grew up in Minnesota, the third child of six. “We were kind of like the Brady Bunch,” she says with a chuckle, “three girls and three boys.”

Like her parents, she attended North Park College (now North Park University) in Chicago, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Covenant Church (an offshoot of the Swedish Lutheran Church), where she earned a bachelor of science in biology with a chemistry minor. While studying medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, she met Rand, who has also attended North Park, a few years before she was there. They met on a bus trip.

“We were both working with a church right next door to the college,” she says, although they had not met. “He would drive the high school kids on their trips. I was a counselor for the church, and we were going to be taking the vans and driving the kids down to the Voice of Calvary missions in Jackson, Mississippi.

“Rand had driven a bus to put himself through college, and when he found out, he said, ‘No, that’s dangerous.’ He got a Greyhound-type bus for the trip.” They married about a year later. “A funny story,” she says. “His last name was also Larson, so I didn’t have to change my name. I call myself Larson Squared.”

She chuckles as she recalls the interview for her internship at St. Francis Hospital. “I was five months pregnant. Of course I didn’t tell them that.” The first of their three sons was due on the day she graduated from medical school in 1989. “Thank goodness he didn’t come until June 13, so I was able to walk across and get my diploma. I started my internship in July.” She credits her “bit of a Type A personality” to the fact that she was voted Intern of the Year.

In her first year of residency in ophthalmology at Cook County Hospital, she and Rand began to consider where they wanted to live. A native of Minnesota who grew up in upstate New York — “closer to New York City,” says Larson — Rand liked New England. “We had one child at the time, took a kind of camping trip, and looked at three or four cities. The last place was Burlington.”

Rand had arranged to meet Thomas Kleh, an ophthalmologist who was planning to retire, she continues, “and driving down Spear Street with hot air balloons all around, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ Dr. Kleh waited for me a year until I was ready.”

The practice, then located at Timberlane, had three employees. “After eight months, the other doctors wanted to buy the Timberlane space, and we bought a condoized unit in Williston,” says Larson. “ It was a little scary having just started practicing, but we were there for 15 years, and the practice just gradually grew.”

Larson began doing LASIK in 2000, and in 2007 she was granted the CON for the ambulatory surgery center. The Hinesburg Road building boasts a large parking lot and a covered garage.

The practice leases state-of-the-art laser equipment from Sightpath Medical, a Minneapolis firm that has worked with VEL for 14 years. The arrangement allows the practice to consistently maintain it.

“We handle all their equipment needs,” says Joel Gaslin, vice president of sales and marketing at Sightpath. “If you think about how the technology they use works, like so many things, there’s a hardware component, but it’s really driven by software, and that changes often. To stay up-to-date on that is expensive, and they use us as a way to stay up-to-date and keep things running smoothly.” The laser sits in a positive-pressure room to keep contaminants out.

Outside of work, Larson and Rand enjoy traveling. “I used to joke with people that, well our house isn’t perfect, but the kids have been a lot of places.” She enjoys running — has participated in a couple of marathons — and the family loves the outdoors. “We live up on Lake Champlain,” she says. “When we first moved to Vermont, we thought we were going to do a lot of skiing. We lived in Richmond and the kids loved to ski in Bolton. We’re enjoying the lake even more.”

For exercise, she uses the sculling boat she bought last year or takes her son’s husky out for runs or a cross-country ski. The family belongs to the Essex Alliance Church and they were involved in bringing Young Life, a nondenominational Christian organization, to Vermont.

Work is never far from her thoughts, though. VEL now has about 18 employees and the ambulatory surgery center has another 18. Asked what’s next, she exclaims, “Oh, boy! I would love to get another ophthalmologist in my practice who would treat people with the same respect that I treat people with. Then I would like to spend a little more time traveling with my husband.” •