Dr. Jorge Calzada still treats underserved in his home country of Panama
After years of studying, training, research and patient care, Dr. Jorge Calzada took on a new challenge and opened his own ophthalmology clinic and research facility in 2019.
But what to name it?
He didn't want something that included his name, and he didn't want a geographic region included because in 20 years a Memphis or Mid-South clinic could expand to Nashville or elsewhere.
"Then one day I was driving down I-40 and I thought, 'Ah, Deep Blue,'" recalled Calzada, the owner of Deep Blue Retina. "I was trying to create an abstract branding concept and plug into the idea of artificial intelligence, deep knowledge and deep thinking. Also, it was something that feels calming to patients."
He also did some informal polling to be sure people saw no political connotations.
"I clearly had no intention of that, and in another scenario, I had some people who asked 'Well, does that mean you only take care of people with blue eyes?'" he said. "You have to be concerned about those things. I don't have blues and many on my staff don't have blue eyes.
"Ultimately, people remember the name, and I would be lying if I told you I don't have expansion plans. Perhaps opening a clinic in my home country of Panama where I've had a presence before."
Calzada now runs Deep Blue Retina and Deep Blue Retina Clinical Research at 7900 Airways Blvd. in Southaven. The clinic specializes in treatment of retinal disorders and surgery, while the research side collaborates with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in developing new treatments for retinal diseases.
"We have nine ongoing clinical research studies, with the majority of them dealing with diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration, but we are expanding," Calzada said. "One role of the office is regular standard medical care, and the other is the research role with the goal of bringing therapies to a population that otherwise would not be available, particularly with diseases that are blinding and that we have no treatment for.
"For example, dry macular degeneration geographic atrophy for which we have three ongoing research studies involving highly complex genetic therapies. We're very excited about this."
On the clinical side, the two biggest issues are diabetes and age-related macular degeneration which is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans over 60, affecting more than 10 million people.
"We all know there is an obesity epidemic and there are issues with medical care of diabetic patients who are not getting into the system fast enough," said Calzada, who performs an average of 10 surgeries a week. "Macular degeneration is another increasing problem simply because of the aging population. As our population lives longer, the diseases of aging are becoming more and more relevant, and so we are seeing patients who are just losing their vision because of macular degeneration.
"Sometimes they may be in their late 80s, but they are otherwise perfectly healthy. Their big disability for their daily lives is their vision. That's clearly an ongoing struggle that we have to deal with. The population we have here in Memphis and in the surrounding rural communities, sad to say, is an underserved population."
Calzada adds that for some less-common disorders, such as retinitis pigmentosa or Stargardt disease, both genetic related, there is almost no treatment. But where there are problems, he sees opportunity for solutions.
"I am eager to work with this population of patients because we are about to enter into a stage of gene therapy or cell therapy for these kinds of disorders," he said. "Most of the gene therapy we are looking at involves ways to stop vision loss. Cell therapy is to repopulate parts of the retina, or any organ of the body for that matter, that has lost function to bring new cells to work. That's the future.
"The most important part of the eye is the retina, which from an embryological perspective is brain tissue that is outside the cranial cavity. You're working with brain neurons and that means multiple things. It means you're working with very delicate tissues and when these cells die, as with in the brain, they do not come back. There's a famous book about retina biology called 'The Approachable Part of the Brain,' and I predict the retina will be the first tissue we use with stem cell therapy before we consider doing that inside the brain."
Calzada's journey to Memphis began after completing medical school at the University of Panama. He received a call from Dr. Barrett Haik of the Hamilton Eye Institute and soon he was on a plane to Memphis. After passing his boards - "the first medical test I ever took in English" - Calzada began doing brain cell and neuron cell research with Haik and with Dr. Dianna Johnson, who he calls "another wonderful influence on my life."
While Memphis has become home, Calzada continues to make regular trips to Panama to do clinical work, often using surgical equipment from companies such as Bausch + Lomb to treat patients and developing newer surgical technologies and therapies.
"My trips have been limited because of pandemic travel restrictions, but in two trips last year I did 60 surgeries," he said. "I hope to reignite the trips to Panama and with forward-thinking concepts of hopefully creating my own independent clinic location there to provide both care to patients and to collaborate with industry in developing new therapies. Latin America is a very highly underserved region that needs help, and the opportunities are there."
Away from the office, Calzada, a father of two, pursues what might seem to be a risky endeavor for a surgeon whose hands are precious assets: traditional Japanese Shotokan karate-do. He has a second-degree black belt.
"I would not take this on from scratch now, but I've been doing it since I was 7-years-old and I am very careful in maintaining my sense of limits so I do not hurt my hands or my back," he said. "Now I do this less for the fighting-combat aspect and more for the personal physical mental development."
A less-risky activity of his is playing jazz piano and blues organ in a group with other medical musicians known as Memphis Soul Remedy.
"It's an escape," Calzada explained. "When you're busy and have a lot of projects, it's always good to have something completely different that lets your mind wander. Karate and music are both like that. Karate allows sort of a deep introspective growth, while music allows you to concern yourself with the esthetics of playing together with other musicians. It's just a wonderful thing to have in my life."