Eleanor Faye: “I keep people going.”

When I came out of the elevator at the Lighthouse, a century-old nonprofit for the people with vision loss, I wasn’t expecting a giant sign over the reception area reading “Eleanor E. Faye Low Vision Service.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. An ophthalmologist, Faye has worked there since 1956 and is a pioneer in the field of low vision: the rehabilitation of people who are visually impaired.

 Greeting me warmly in her small, cluttered office, Faye told me about growing up in Hawaii, where her father was a sugar broker. Isolated by the fact that the mail arrived by ship twice a week and there was no transatlantic phone, she compensated by reading every book she could get her hands on. “One aunt convinced the librarian to let me take three books out,” Faye recalls, smiling at the memory. “My uncles all married school teachers, so they had me in their clutches, and I was learning all the time. I loved it.”

Three months after she arrived at Stanford University as one of two women in a class of 60. Pearl Harbor was bombed. “They gathered us together in a room and said, 'You are a different generation, you are a war generation, and you can’t just sit around and be housewives.'” To her English professor’s regret, Faye went pre-med. It wasn’t until she absolutely had to pick a specialty that she got the opthalmology bug, at which point she found out that a year of surgery was required. It so happened that Faye’s aunt worked for a fashion designer and was socially well connected. It so happened that she summoned her niece one night to make conversation with Aida de Costa Breckenridge, a prominent New York socialite. It so happened that Mrs. Breckenridge was philanthropically involved in eye research. The first audio clip below describes Mrs. Breckenridge’s autocratic intervention, as a result of which Faye became the first female Resident in Ophthalmology at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital.

After her residency she was invited into a private practice with one of the surgeon directors of the hospital and also established a rehabilitation service offering low vision therapy. Low vision appealed to her because it involved “people who were neglected, who’d been told, ‘There’s nothing we can do for you.’” she explains. “We made house calls, we went and got people who were visually impaired, we brought them in. That’s why my name’s on the wall, because I built up all this rehab,” she explains.

Faye also turned out to be an excellent surgeon. She loved it because “in rehab surgery you do wonderful things for people. They get their sight back.” Her youngest patient was three hours old, her oldest age 103. At the older end of the spectrum, Faye's patients often get a new lease on active life, as the second audio clip describes. During her tenure as a surgeon, she learned at least four different methods, witnessing astonishing transitions in areas like cataract surgery. “We used to have a long thin knife that we stuck through the eye. We sawed up and opened the eye and pulled the cataract out. Now we insert an ultrasonic probe into a 3mm incision, vibrate the cataract out, and the person goes to lunch with implants in. Now they’re doing bifocal implants, which is new since I retired.”

Faye retired from surgery in 2002, at age 79. “One day, after a very successful cataract operation, I was walking on 64th Street towards my office and I suddenly said to myself, ‘That’s the last case I am going to do. And that was it.” Leading up to the decision was the occasional patient asking, "Are you still doing surgery?” “The underlying question of course related to competency and age, and no one can conceal their age any more. Also, I can remember World War II, which is a giveaway,” she observes wryly. “I had a stellar career, and I thought, ‘I’m going out when I’m still on top.’”

Ever since, she’s been happily assisting her associate and taking care of her patients’ post-operative needs. Aside from moving her first appointment of the day back to 10:00, the ophthalmologist’s schedule is the same as ever: two days at the Lighthouse and three seeing patients in her office. Since a recent regime change, she works harder than ever. Grossly underpaid, she’s thinking of asking for a raise. Faye lives off investments because her practice barely breaks even, in part because she often undercharges or charges nothing at all. . Sometimes she regrets being so busy, but she can’t even imagine retiring. She loves the constant stimulation and seeing patients, with whom she never spends less than 30 minutes.

Faye has no doubt that she’s more competent than ever, not only because of her medical knowledge but because she knows what questions to ask. “Every person with an eye problem has a story. So I do psychotherapy too, my version of it, which is learning everything about them that they care to tell me or that I can get out of them.” Nor does she think her age affects the way patient and colleagues treat her, perhaps because "I don’t consider myself old. Mentally I feel maybe in my early 60’s — older middle age.” As for sexism, Faye sees herself as having gone after what she wanted rather than blazing a trail: “I worked hard and I did my share, I enjoy the company of men, and I truly never felt that I stood out as a woman.” Never married, she describes herself as “very fortunate in my relationships” and is glad to have been spared the struggles of her married-with-children friends trying to juggle it all. “I’ve really led the most interesting and exciting life, and I have people close to me.”

What’s the doctor’s one regret? That she didn’t learn Spanish, because “it is so useful.” Usefulness is paramount — not just for Faye but for many older workers “I have a lot of interests. But [in my work] I really do something useful for some people, and I really couldn’t give that up until I have to,” she says. “I’ve had many of my patients for 40 or 50 years. They say, ‘Don’t ever retire. Are you thinking of retiring?’ And they’re glad that I say no.” One more regret? That she couldn’t study Ancient Greek in high school. The Latin teacher was game to teach Faye and her friend, “ but when we asked the principal — this was 1936 — he said, ‘You can’t. You will overstretch your brains.’” Faye’s been overstretching her brain ever since, and thousands of visually impaired Americans have reaped the benefits.

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Comments

Eleanor Faye was one of two women in her stanford class which means she was unusual from the start. my instincts are that most of the eighty and ninety somethings you are talking to, established themselves as "different" and "comfortable on the edge or margins" early in life. is this true? if it is, it doesn't mean this isn't the beginning of a trend, just that it takes trailblazers to establish it.

the question of how "different" or remarkable my subjects may be— and thus whether the rest of us will be able to emulate them in some way — is of course central to this project. interestingly, as i look over my growing pile of transcripts, i don't think i'd describe most of these individuals as "trailblazers." Some are unusual, of course, but most simply get up in the morning and go to work, as they have all their long lives. Even Dr. Faye, despite her remarkable accomplishments, doesn't see herself as a role model or standard bearer. so i don't think it's a trend, except in the broad sense of reflecting the demographic shifts of a longer-lived population.