From a one-man ophthalmology practice to a state-of-the-art eye center with 24 physicians and a staff numbering in the hundreds, Illinois Eye Center has been at the forefront of providing eye care services to Peoria area patients for more than 60 years.
One constant and driving force has been Dr. Thomas Wyman, whose father, Dr. George Wyman, founded a small, local ophthalmology practice in the 1940s.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Dr. George Wyman was looking for a larger Illinois city than his native Dixon for his practice. Peoria fit the bill, and in 1945 he bought a practice in the Jefferson Building downtown. In 1957, he relocated to 1200 Hamilton Blvd., where the practice would grow dramatically over the next 50 years, due largely to his son, Dr. Thomas Wyman.
Wyman the son initially thought he’d become a neurologist, but ultimately decided on ophthalmology. “I was out of the Army, single and living in Denver because it was a lovely place to be,” he explained. “But I was unable to find a practice where I could perform surgery and hone my skills. Coming back to Peoria afforded me that opportunity.”
But joining his father’s practice came with some trepidation. “My father was a furious worker all his life,” said the younger Wyman. “He loved what he did, so I wouldn’t call him a workaholic. But I never really knew him growing up, so when I came back to Peoria in 1977 to join his practice, in a way he was kind of a stranger.
“It turned out he had a very wry sense of humor that I hadn’t realized, and he really enjoyed interacting with his patients.”
SETTING THEIR SIGHTS
The two Wymans tag-teamed on what was already a bustling practice.
“Before I joined, the wait to see my father was one year for a routine appointment,” said Wyman. “Once I came on board, it dropped to six months, and within six months after that, it was back to one year.”
Between the wait time and the number of patients being referred to Chicago or St. Louis for specialty care, the Wymans made a decision.
“For some of our older patients, Chicago was the face of the moon,” said Wyman. “So I suggested we recruit subspecialty ophthalmologists and grow the practice – and that’s what we did.”
Dr. Steven Sicher was the first to join in 1980. “Steve was a corneal specialist … and the first non-family member in our practice,” Wyman explained. “As a result, we changed the name to Wyman-Sicher Eye Associates.”
In 1985, they added Dr. Pete Lagouros, a retinal ophthalmologist. “To avoid sounding like a legal or accounting practice by adding another name to the door, we decided on a more generic name: Illinois Eye Center,” said Wyman, laughing.
From there, they recruited a pediatric ophthalmologist, an oculoplastic specialist and ultimately a glaucoma specialist, Dr. Patrick Rhode, who remains with the practice today.
“I joined the Illinois Eye Center in 1995, right out of training,” said Rhode. “A few months in, I had a complication during one of my surgeries, and was worried what these seasoned ophthalmologists were going to think of this young gun. Dr. Wyman pulled me aside and said, ‘You know how to avoid complications during surgery? Don’t operate. Complications are going to happen and you have to do the best you can for your patients.’ He was so kind and understanding, and continues to be to this day.”
A CLEARER VISION
The practice was bursting at the seams and needed to rent additional space. Ultimately, a group decision was made to build on land off Illinois Route 91 in north Peoria. Illinois Eye Center moved there in 2007.
“It’s pretty amazing how the Center has gone from Dr. George Wyman’s initial practice on Jefferson Street, which was maybe 1,500 square feet, to our current space at 8921 Wood Sage Road, which is 45,000 square feet,” said Tim McCormack, Illinois Eye Center’s executive director of five years. The practice also has satellite offices in Washington and Pekin.
‘DR. WYMAN OR BUST’
“When Dr. Wyman joined his father’s practice, it began a mission that ultimately saw Illinois Eye Center grow to care for more patients annually than most busy academic institutions,” said Dr. Yannis Kolettis, who has been with the practice for 22 years. “He established unique, loyal and long-term bonds with his patients. When I first joined … some patients would refuse to see me, though I could get them in sooner due to my sparse schedule. It was Dr. Wyman or bust!”
Over time, Wyman became the go-to physician for cataract surgery, performing more than 25,000 such procedures. “When I first came to Peoria, I was doing it all, from the front … to the back of the eye,” he said. “Then we became so busy that we had to refer some of those procedures out, which of course was the impetus to expand.”
Wyman reflected on the changes in medicine over the years. “As my grandfather was getting ready to pass on, he said, ‘You know, it’s a shame to be leaving this earth; they’re inventing such interesting things.’ And when I look back on what’s happened in ophthalmology, that’s very true.”
One example is Wyman’s specialty, cataract surgery. “When I started in ophthalmology, we were taking the lens out of the eye, which is what a cataract extraction is, and not replacing it. Now, we’re able to replace the lens to correct for nearsightedness and astigmatism, and our success rates are much higher – like 99 percent.”
Meanwhile, “radial keratotomy used to be one of the most common procedures to correct nearsightedness,” he said. “We went from that procedure, which was a lot of surgery for not a lot of improvement, to LASIK, which is using a laser to reshape the cornea.” In fact, Dr. Kolettis trained with Dr. Ioannis Pallikaris, the surgeon credited with pioneering LASIK.
Wyman is proud of not only his practice but of the level of medical care in general locally. “What some people don’t realize is that the size and sophistication of the medical community is significantly higher than you would expect for a medium-sized city in the Midwest,” he explained. “When we’ve looked at networking with other practices around the nation, we’ve only found about a dozen … that come close to doing what we’re doing. The largest practice outside of Chicago and St. Louis, with the widest array of subspecialty services, is right here in Peoria.”
REFLECTING ON A LEGACY
Wyman is now semi-retired. He enjoys fishing, golfing, reading and walking his two dogs, Willie and Grace, but perhaps his favorite place remains the halls of Illinois Eye Center, interacting with patients and staff.
“Dr. Wyman … is unwavering in his dedication to treat every patient as if they are the only person he is seeing that day,” said Dr. Evan Pike, who came on board in 2012.
“I swear his pulse is never above 62,” joked Rhode. “He never has an ill word… He treats everyone on the staff like family.”
“He taught me that caring for a patient wasn’t just about removing their cataract or prescribing glasses, but connecting in ways that reveal your genuine interest in their fears, uncertainties and lives,” added Kolettis. “My relationships with many of my patients have been modeled after what Dr. Wyman shared in those early days.”
Reflecting on his career, Wyman said he feels “very blessed to have been able to practice for 45 years.
“When you start at one end of life, you don’t really tend to think about what’s going to happen at the far end of it … I like to say that ophthalmologists don’t die, we just refract away. I believe that’s just what might happen with me, but until then, I’m living the dream.”
Amy Talcott senior marketing and communications
analyst at RLI Corp. and freelance writer