The End of an Era – The Passing of Dr. Harry Wachs
Prologue: This is a post I wrote in March 2015. With the news of Dr. Wachs’ passing earlier this morning, I share it again in his honor.
The first time I encountered Dr. Harry Wachs was not long before his 81st birthday. He, and his now late wife Ruth, had traveled to San Diego for Dr. Wachs to impart his incredible knowledge and vast experience on the 35 of us lucky enough to call ourselves his seminar audience. That particular seminar was conducted over three separate weekends, spread out over a summer, and lured some of the great doctors of our time to participate. “Harry”, as he insisted we refer to him, opened doors through his teaching whose existence may not even have occurred to us before meeting him. As Harry’s 91st birthday approaches later this year, I was reminded today of the direct and indirect influence he has had, not only on my learning, but the learning of so many in and around Vision Therapy. One of the greatest benefits of getting to know Harry over that summer was witnessing his many anecdotes, one of which involved a Vision Therapy patient he once treated at his home with little more than two pencils, an eye patch, and a Marsden Ball hung in his kitchen. If there was ever anyone capable of pulling this off, it would be Harry.
As I sit here now, it would be challenging if not impossible to summarize the ‘takeaway’ message to all of the Developmental Optometrists and Vision Therapists in that seminar series, but if I were to ever attempt it, my thought would simply be this:
Learn to think outside the box.
Harry isn’t much for ‘cookbook’ therapy. He made clear his passion for individualizing Vision Therapy to every patient, and challenged those of us in his audience to do the same. It’s probably also the reason that many of the ‘tests’ he considers most valuable were never subject to standardization. Sure, he used much of the same equipment that most other offices use, but his thoughts and line of questioning came from a different place. A deeper place. He wanted to know what you saw, how you understood the world, how you got there, and how he could take your level of visual processing and logical thinking to a level you never imagined possible. Not many cookbooks offer such information. And the age of his patients didn’t matter. He was just as committed to helping adults as he was the day he used a felt tip pen to draw a dot on the tip if his nose to demonstrate his favorite method for holding the attention of a two-year old.
Harry is the master of adaptation in the therapy room. He can bend, twist, adjust, and re-calibrate with his patient much faster than most of us can exhale. And 99 times out of 100, he’s thinking six steps ahead of the rest of us and he knows the mistake you’re about to make long before you arrive. He’s just that good. Not because he has had extensive education in the field (he used to brag that he has only two years and seven months of higher education), but because by using particles of insight gained from watching and listening, he has figured out how to quickly find a new path when the current one seems to be ending. Just because a patient cannot achieve on this particular activity on this particular day doesn’t mean much to Harry. He’d find a way to get them there, almost as if it was his own little personal challenge.
‘Thinking outside the box’ is a figure of speech that refers to thinking differently, unconventionally, or even from a new and previously unconsidered perspective. Perhaps more commonly known as lateral thinking, it requires one to consider creative and less obvious approaches to problem solving. In layman’s terms, the obvious solution is not the only solution. It’s a new way to think, and often departs from the logical paradigm in which most of us exist. That is where Vision Therapy really gets fun, and it’s where Harry demonstrated his mastery.
All this came to mind today after two separate, but similar, conversations I was part of regarding Vision Therapy with children who have not yet had their third birthday. Some feel like it’s too young and still others are willing to try. The one deterrent being that the communication with these young kids may not be conducive to effective Vision Therapy, which reminded me of another point Harry made, and that is that communication belongs to the speaker. It’s not the listener’s job to understand. It’s the speaker’s job to make things understandable. Communication with a 2-year-old is all about an unconventional approach. I promise you they couldn’t care less about their accommodative flexibility or their vergence ranges, but make VT all about their favorite imaginary cartoon character or favorite animal, and their yours. It’s not the way you communicate with every other patient that matters; rather, the way you communicate with this patient. Be as individual with their therapy as they are in their needs.
So, whether you’re working with a 2 year-old or a 92 year-old, if you’re not getting the answers or level engagement you’re looking for, try this:
Ask a different question. Be creative. Find a way. Try something new.
Think outside the box.
Thanks, Harry! 🙂
With the news of his passing, anyone wishing to send well wishes to his family can do so here: