After three and a half decades of helping to improve people’s eyesight, Dr. Robert Appel has decided to slow down. And while his hundreds of patients across the North Shore are sorry to see his ophthalmology practice close, patients abroad, as well as medical students, will continue to benefit from his skills.
Appel, 72, of Glen Head, will retire from his practice on Forest Avenue, in Glen Cove, next month, but will continue teaching cataract surgery to residents at Northwell Health in Syosset, serving on the boards of a variety of organizations and taking part in mission work overseas.
“I trust him,” said Grace Blank of Bayville, a patient of Appel’s for over 25 years. “If I ever needed eye surgery, it would only be him. He’s calm, caring and knowledgeable. And I love that he travels around the world to help the underprivileged.”
As a student at Cornell Medical School in the 1970s, Appel was introduced to the challenges and rewards of working abroad. “When I finished my training [at Boston University], I decided I wanted to do more work abroad,” he said. “After residency, I did some short-term volunteer stints in Africa, got a job in a government hospital in Soweto, in South Africa, and worked there for a couple years.”
Then he got a job in New York, and took over the practice in Glen Cove in 1986. “But I always had it in the back of my mind to be able to some work abroad,” he said.
About 10 years ago, Appel finally revisited that idea, and took his talent to underdeveloped areas. “It’s an opportunity to practice medicine the way you were taught, without regard to any government oversight or having to worry about reimbursement,” he said. “You’re taking care of people who really need the care and don’t have access to it any other way.”
Appel is on the board of directors of Izote, a nonprofit founded in Sea Cliff in 2010 that serves the people of El Salvador. He is also on the medical staff of Sights on Health, a nonprofit that operates in South Dakota, Ecuador and Peru.
Risa Procton, president and executive director of Izote, said that its original mission was to create literacy programs in rural schools in El Salvador. “At the same time,” Procton said, “we wanted to do something for cataracts, which are a huge problem in the developing world. It’s very easy to solve, but there’s no access to care to a very simple surgery.”
Procton recalled read a story in the local paper about Appel going to Africa to do surgeries, so she called him. “He signed up, and has been working with us ever since,” she said.
Appel volunteers his time, working with a local eye surgeon in a public hospital. Izote raised the money to purchase the operating microscope needed for the surgery, with Appel’s consultation. “He has provided all the expertise, and led two surgical missions,” Procton said. “We couldn’t have done any of it without him.”
This year, Izote organized a letter-writing fundraiser and raised $10,000, enough to buy a special laser that can correct the blurred vision that can sometimes occur after cataract surgery.
Appel said he has gone on a total of 15 missions over the years with various groups, most recently in February 2020. “My main connection is to do cataract surgery with them,” he explained, “which is one of the few operations that you can actually show up and bring most of the equipment you would need to set up in a place where it might not be available.”
Cataract patients have a relatively short recovery period, which also makes it easier to do overseas, and the operation makes a big difference in people’s lives. “Even for a short-term clinic you can make a big difference for them,” Appel said, “more so than what you generally do at home.”
In the U.S., Appel said, most people get cataract surgery when they have minor vision issues, such as not being able to read easily, or having trouble with lights or glares while driving. “But abroad, it’s mostly a matter of not being able to see, practically being blind,” he said. “That not only affects that person, but it means that somebody else has to take care of them, which means a whole family might not have any income because they aren’t able to work. So the impact is much bigger when you do that work abroad.”
Robert and his wife, Robin, moved to Glen Head from Manhattan in 1995, when both their family and his practice were growing. During his years in Glen Cove, he has known some patients from their first pair of eyeglasses to their cataract surgery. For many on the North Shore, Appel has been the trusted family ophthalmologist for more than one generation.
Kathy Goodman, of Matinecock, has been a patient for over 25 years. “He’s very thorough, and has a very calm demeanor,” she said of Appel. “And he’s not an egotist. He’s been following my changes for years, and when he can’t deal with the problem, he refers me to someone who can.”
John Grella, 55, of Glen Cove, has been seeing Appel “for decades,” Grella said, adding that Appel is the preferred family ophthalmologist: Grella’s mother, sisters, wife and son are also patients. “He’s been working on my eyes for a very long time,” Grella said, “and he really cares about the health of his patients.”
Grella said that one of the ways Appel has earned his trust is by monitoring a condition, and not rushing in to surgery or the use of medication. And, Grella said, Appel knows when to refer patients to other specialists. “He’s not just an excellent surgeon,” Grella said, “but he knows where to send you.”
He said he owes his sight to Appel, who caught a deteriorating condition in time. “I would possibly be blind without him,” Grella said.
Rich Barrett, of Sea Cliff, has been a patient for 25 years. Appel did cataract surgery, and has been treating Barrett for glaucoma. “He’s a terrific doctor, and I really admire him,” he said. “He’s a true humanitarian.”
Over the years, Barrett said, he and Appel have developed a friendship of sorts, sharing an interest in travel. “He’s treated me so well over the years, and fits me in whenever there’s a problem,” Barrett said. “I’m happy for him, but am disappointed to see him retire.”
Amy O’Regan, of Glen Cove, has been seeing Appel for about 20 years. Due to the condition of her eyes, she said, she sees several doctors, and goes to Appel every four months. “He’s soft-spoken and has a calming manner, and I need that,” O’Regan said. “I have a number of problems with my eyes, and he’s very thorough, always explains things to me and never rushes. I also have great respect for his humanitarian efforts. He’s just a good guy, and I’m very sad to see him go.”