Dr. Timothy Root is a practicing ophthalmologist and cataract surgeon in Daytona Beach, Florida. He began cartooning while an undergraduate at Yale University, and continued his medical illustration while earning his medical degree at Columbia University.
Dr. Root has published several medical textbooks, including the popular “OphthoBook.com” which is available for free online and has been downloaded by 300-thousand visitors over the past decade. He is frequently requested to speak at medical schools world wide. Video recordings of his medical lectures are available online and have been watched over four-million times on YouTube … making him one of the most popular eye lecturers in the world.
Tim Root’s quest to make ophthalmology not suck so bad.
Welcome fellow student … or perhaps I should say pupil! You’ve just discovered the coolest website for the beginning eye student. My name is Tim Root, and I built this site to help other students learn about the eye. This website contains video lectures and books that are perfect for the struggling student who needs to learn ophthalmology/optometry as quickly as possible.
It sucks to be a student.
As a medical student, I found ophthalmology intimidating and difficult to grasp. Rather than teach me basics, my preceptors seemed to imply that EVERYTHING was important. This was obviously not true. I remember being sent to the library to spend hours studying the effects of homocysteinemia on the eye – a condition that I haven’t seen ONCE during my residency training or in my busy private practice. An unfocused, tangential approach like this is paralyzing and inefficient for the new student.
New students (that’s YOU, right?) need simple explanations. This is especially true when it comes to the eye, as none of your prior education is applicable to the eyeball. How are you supposed to sort the important facts from the dross when you’ve never been exposed to this field before?
Unfortunately, as a student I simply couldn’t find any good ophthalmology resources. The internet was just starting (no YouTube or Facebook) and the books at my local bookstore were unreadable – written at an advanced level to help senior residents pass their board certifications. These massive tomes were filled with obscure facts bearing little relevance to real life and just weren’t appropriate for a beginner.
You need simple explanations!
Or at least, I did when I was a student. There’s nothing as terrifying as the first few months in an ophthalmology clinic. I was thrown into an exam room and expected to diagnose patients. None of my prior studies had prepared me for this task. I didn’t know how to use the slit lamp microscope. I wasn’t even sure how to check vision.
As straightforward as these questions sound, nobody ever writes this basic stuff down. Want to learn about antibiotics for the eye? Good luck! Pharmacology textbooks won’t help you – they can teach you about fluoroquinolone inhibition of DNA gyrase … but what medicine do you give for pink eye?
Ocular basics are usually learned the hard way. Students bumble through the eye clinic for months as they learn through trial and error. A difficult time, indeed, especially with those senior doctors harassing you.
Medicine can be harsh for the uninitiated.
As an ophthalmology resident, I felt bad for the “normal” students rotating through our department. Ophthalmology is woefully untaught in medical schools, and yet we still expect these poor students to know everything. Some even take pleasure in asking students trivia and watching them squirm and stammer out wrong answers.
I watched with disappointment as students cycled through our clinics, excited to leave the world of eye disease. Ophthalmology gets a bad rap in medical school. It’s obtuse. It’s obscure. The eye is an “island unto itself” that is rarely involved with mainstream medicine.
The Happy Happy Fun Time Book for Easily Bored Students
My first book began as a cheat sheet that I gave to medical students so they wouldn’t feel like idiots in our clinic. I focused on situations we dealt with daily, including the favorite “pimp questions” the attendings liked to ask. Every month a new crop of “ocular noobs” rotated through my department so I expanded the printout into a short booklet of tips and tricks.
I called this booklet the Happy Happy Fun Time Guide to Ophthalmology. A silly name perhaps, but students loved it. At least, I think they did. It’s hard to tell with medical students as savvy trainees quickly learn to feign interest in such things in order to survive.
Either way, the booklet eventually became large enough to call it a “book,” and I published it online under the name OphthoBook.
Despite being self-published, this little textbook is still my best seller. The book is completely “craptastic” – filled with amateurish cartoons, typos, and poor typography. Seriously, I cringe with embarrassment every time I look through it. My newer books are better, but people still love OphthoBook, warts and all.
The book consistently ranks as a top-seller on Amazon and the free PDF has been downloaded over 400-thousand times. It may be the most read beginner ophthalmology book of all time. Not because the book is amazing … but because it is easy, short, and extremely relevant. And free. Did I mention that the PDF is free to download?
Do you love complexity? Or simplicity?
This may be a blunt observation, but I believe students (and people generally) fall into two types:
People who love complexity
People who love simplicity
Most academic professors I’ve met fall into the first category. Academic doctors love the complexity of the human body and happily delve into the minutia of ocular disease. They research complex ways to explain biology and delight in discovering obscure associations.
There is nothing wrong with this – a willingness to embrace complexity is what generates basic science and medical progress.
Unfortunately, introductory textbooks are written by the same academics and follow the same confusing approach. Most textbooks are extremely long, detailed, and spend inordinate time explaining interesting (and obscure) diseases. For example: there are ten different corneal dystrophies. Most are rare and you’ll never see them during your entire career. Nonetheless, beginner textbooks devote entire chapters to these zebras.
If you are a complexity-loving student – more power to you. You will do great in ophthalmology and make major contributions to our field. I recommend you spend your time studying traditional textbooks on this subject: check out Yanoff, Kanski, and the incredibly dry (but all-inclusive) home study course put out by the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Simpletons like me
Rather than search for higher levels of complexity, I prefer to simplify my understanding of the eye into broader frameworks. Metaphor and analogy are my best friends.
The lens has layers like a peanut M&M candy.
The vitreous is like a bowl of Jello dessert that’s been drying out in the sun.
The eye is about one inch long … the same length as a gorilla’s penis.
These comparisons may seem “easy” but they are extremely useful. Learning ophthalmology is like building a house. You have to establish a basic foundation of knowledge before building higher level concepts.
In other words … it is HARD to learn new things in isolation.
It’s EASIER to learn things when they are similar to “stuff” you already know.
Medicine is a long road and students know a LOT of basic science … but little of that knowledge is relevant to the eye. Why not build your ocular foundation upon easy metaphors that anyone can comprehend? Like the famous football coach Vince Lombardi once said: You gotta learn the fundamentals!
And the fundamentals are what I like to teach.
My style isn’t for everyone!
I still occasionally come across students who are born complexity-loving academics. These students would rather dive right into the encyclopedic fountain of knowledge and consume traditional textbooks as fast as possible.
More power to you guys … but my way is easier. And a lot funner!
So what else can I say? If you’ve read this far, you must be really bored. Or a potential stalker, so I might as well keep going, right?
Let’s see. I was raised in Daytona Beach, Florida by two middle-class working parents. My father was an accountant for NASCAR who eventually worked for our local community college. My mother worked as a proof-reader and administrator at the same college.
I went to public high school as an above-average student. I played trumpet in the band and joined the football team in a misguided attempt to meet girls (it didn’t work). I was an eagle scout and played Dungeons and Dragons with the smart kids in my neighborhood. This did not the impress girls, either. Nor did my high school comic strip Amoeba Pig!
A certain degree of social ineptitude is good for a kid. In my case, it kept me home at nights and I somehow managed to get into Yale for college.
Daytona Boy Visits Yale University
Yale was an interesting experience for a kid like me. Many of my fellow students came from prep schools and the sheer amount of talent was incredible. Half of my roommates were valedictorians, and several of my classmates were Olympic athletes. I on the other hand, liked to doodle cartoons and not talk to girls.
Most of the rich* kids came from money and seemed to gravitate toward finance or creative endeavors. They became entrepreneurs, investment bankers, and real estate tycoons. They probably rule the world right now.
The rest of us “poor kids” went into law and medicine – a difficult but predictable pathway to financial security.
* Poor and rich are used in relative terms, here. The average family income for Yale students was 250k a year. That’s about five times higher than the national average.
With no other career ambitions I went to medical school in an attempt to find my destiny. It seemed like a good idea. My parents were proud.
That’s when things went downhill …
Medical School Really Sucked
I ended up at Columbia University in New York City.
Medical school was pretty awful for me. For one thing, I really was poor at this point. I was out of cash, living week to week off credit cards, sharing a subsidized apartment with two girls (who i was afraid to talk to).
Despite maxing out my federal and private loans, my mother had to take a second job selling underwear at JC Penney to keep me afloat. I ate a lot of Ramen noodles and I had no friends. My clinic rotations involved some of the nastiest wards in the city. I’m still amazed I didn’t contract tuberculosis.
Teaching hospitals tend to be in the worst part of towns, and I lived in a ghetto. Dog poop on every sidewalk and trash in every gutter. I was nervous to leave my apartment after dark and I fell asleep every night to the sound of car alarms.
It could have been worse, of course. I wasn’t living on the streets, and I wasn’t dealing with a terminal illness. But medical school was not what I expected and I went to bed every night with a sick feeling in my gut that I had made a serious mistake.
It started with Dr. Oz
My medical career didn’t start off well, and it began with my faculty adviser. I was assigned to Mehmet Oz (before he became famous) who was on staff with Columbia’s cardiology department.
As I remember it, Dr. Oz gave me his business card and told me he was pretty busy. I was to “call him” if I had any problems. I never heard from him again and I was too shy to cold-call a busy cardiologist with my career misgivings.
A few years later Oz went mainstream with his books and eventually “jumped the shark” into the realm of holistic pseudoscience. But I digest.
I rotated through various specialties with a sense of dread. Nothing in medicine appealed to me. The coursework was dense and poorly taught. Columbia has some of the best scientists in the world … but a brilliant doctor is NOT the same as a brilliant teacher. I would have preferred the latter.
Clinical rotations were worse – I’d never worked on a hospital floor before, much less an inner city hospital. These places are cesspits of overworked housestaff and pompous egomaniacs. I was exposed to the most malignant and miserable people on the planet. Attendings belittled me and residents were too busy to teach. Nurses yelled at me for the tiniest infraction. One time a janitor at Harlem Hospital cussed me out. I still don’t know why. Nobody else cared.
I kept my head down and tried to stay invisible. For a sensitive guy like me – medical school was hell.
But what to do?
Time to Quit?
I almost quit, student loans be damned. I would have quit if I could think of anything else I could do. I didn’t want to break my mother’s heart. I’m not the suicidal type (that’s the coward’s route) but if I had to work the rest of my life in one of those hospitals … that would be a fate worse than death for me.
One day the dean of Columbia medical school called me into her office. I was obviously depressed and it was affecting my performance. She asked me if I was “cut out” for medicine. Was this even the right field for me? She told me I needed more hedonism in my life.
What an odd thing to say to a young student. Hedonism? Was I supposed to snort cocaine and party like a rockstar? I couldn’t afford hedonism … even if I wanted it!
Apparently, I needed to find another outlet. I was at risk of “burning out’ before I even got started. I needed a project. Something creative to do outside of the hospital to keep me sane.
Medicine is not particularly creative.
Medical school is the antithesis of creativity. Medicine primarily involves memorization (student), technique mastery (surgeon), and pattern recognition (clinician).
There are very few creative outlets in healthcare outside of research and writing – both activities out of reach for a lowly student.
I didn’t have this problem in college. As an undergraduate, I could sate my creative appetite on various projects – I drew cartoons for the school newspaper and designed flyers for parties and charity events. I took music classes and gave volunteer piano lessons to kids.
But in medical school? Forget about it! Creativity is not a skill set valued in a medical student.
So I looked outside of medicine for opportunities …
A terrible cartoonist is born!
I began drawing cartoons and submitting them to local trade magazines. A large number of trade journals are based out of New York City, and many of them will publish cartoons their readership might enjoy. The bigger ones, such as The New Yorker, are extremely competitive. The smaller journals are much easier to break into.
I had some experience with cartoons, having drawn a short series for my college newspaper, so I began to make submissions. In short order, I made a sale! How exciting! An outlet for my creativity that made money and got me a publication!
It was a small thing, that first check. I only made fifty dollars … but that check was a symbol for me. A sign that I could do something besides general medicine. Maybe a new career? Or at least a “side hustle” to keep me sane.
But most cartoonists live in their mother’s basement. That’s all they can afford.
Freelance cartoon royalties were terrible. A hundred dollars here. A hundred there. It was obvious that I’d never make a living as a cartoonist unless I broke into the big time like the New Yorker or Playboy (not likely). Even successful cartoonists barely scrape by. Few cartoonists reach syndication status. Charles Schulz I am not.
Plus, I was still knee-deep in my training and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
What to do? I needed to build something to stimulate my creative drive and make some money. I turned to the internet.
My first online business
I started medical school in 1998. That doesn’t seem like long ago, but the internet was a different beast back then. This was the first time I had an email address and unrestricted access to the internet. Yahoo was the dominant search engine. Google wasn’t around and YouTube hadn’t been invented, yet. Facebook wouldn’t arrive for years.
However, websites were being born, MySpace was cool, and the dot-com bubble was in full swing! I learned basic HTML and started my first website, selling glow-in-the-dark paint that my brother mixed in his garage. I saved money and bought a couple of domain names.
Dot-com names were expensive back then, as ICANN hadn’t yet opened up the field to registrars like GoDaddy. Domain names cost $70 each through network solutions and Yahoo wanted hundreds of dollars to be listed in their stupid web-directory. That was a lot of cash for a student like me.
Despite my limited capital, I built a website for our glowing paint business and it took off. We made a handsome profit every month. I was in charge of the website and collecting sales and my brother would ship out the paint from his local post office every weekend.
Then we started getting orders from overseas. We had to learn shipping and tax laws for mailing flammable paint across borders. There was the corporate structure, documentation, and tax forms to figure out as well.
One day, a law-firm ordered a bunch of our paint and we got nervous about liability. Then a Chinese manufacturer copied our web-design and product packaging.
I realized that physical products were a pain in the butt. Physical goods are expensive, hard to patent and easy to duplicate by competitors.
The glowing paint business was taking too much of my limited spare time. I was supposed to be learning histology, not writing sales copy and running customer support!
Plus, it was a little dull. How much copywriting and marketing can you do for glowing paint before you start getting bored with it? I didn’t want to give up on medicine to become a paint salesman. One of the reasons I went to medical school was in an attempt to have some relevance to my life. To do something meaningful.
I didn’t think paint would do that for me. So I closed it down and switched to digital products.
The next creative project … online training videos
As a medical student, I had neither the time nor resources to fully capitalize on the internet. Still, I found it fascinating as a publishing medium for books and video. My brief foray into cartoon publication taught me that traditional media (print magazines, journals, etc.) was a hard road to success. Traditional publications employ editors that act as gatekeepers.
But online, you don’t have editors. You can publish anything you want to the internet. Perhaps I could create my own video training course and sell it online!
I created a website called MightyCoach and made two products – a short video series on how to edit movies using MovieMaker and another on how to use PowerPoint.
The PowerPoint course bombed (too much competition) but the video editing series sold quite well. Enough to bolster my monthly finances and give me some breathing room to study. The course continued to generate passive income for another eight years, even after I moved on to better things.
Despite my success, I didn’t think I could hack it teaching software full time. Other websites were popping up that did it better (visit lynda.com) and I was only an expert with a few programs.
This was a problem of scarcity … or a lack of it. Anyone can make a screencapture video. The barriers to entry for basic software instruction is very low – a high school student with a computer could replicate what I had done.
I needed to find a niche that used ALL my skill set that couldn’t be easily duplicated.
Is there a way to combine YOUR TALENTS into a niche YOU can dominate?
Maybe there was a way to combine my burgeoning web/multimedia interests (low barrier to entry) with my medical studies (high barrier of entry). How many doctors could there be who knew how to illustrate, make websites, and edit videos?
Not many. Not back then.
I decided to become a medical educator.
Columbia’s Informatics Team
I convinced my dean to let me work with Columbia’s informatics team – a group of designers who were responsible for the medical school’s websites, training programs, and multimedia assets.
For two whole months I got to work in an office with a bunch of “artists” and it was amazing! These designers were happy. They were nice. They didn’t belittle me and they didn’t have a chip on their shoulder. Plus, they got to use their creativity to design things!
I was the first medical student to take an informatics rotation, so I tried to make the most of it. I took online crash courses and taught myself Photoshop, Premiere, Dreamweaver, and Adobe Illustrator. I improved my HTML skills and learned to edit video using professional software. I worked on my drawing and painting technique.
I was learning to teach, to communicate, to produce … but I was still in search of a meaningful topic to teach about.
Until one day, finally …
I DISCOVERED THE EYE
In my final year of medical school I rotated through Columbia’s ophthalmology department and I was hooked. I finally found a field of medicine aligned with my interests!
Ophthalmology is pretty neat! The eye exam is fun and you get to use microscopes to examine cool anatomy. Unlike internal medicine, you get to actually SEE what you’re treating.
You get to do delicate surgery. There isn’t a lot of blood involved and you aren’t stuck in the operating room for hours. Surgical results are quick and patients are happy.
You don’t have to give rectal exams or look at people’s genitalia. You don’t have to work in a hospital.
Best of all … nobody ever dies. This was a big deal for me. I was in tears the first time I watched someone gasp to death in the ICU. It still haunts me.
It’s different, too!
Ophthalmology is unlike any other field in medicine. The eyeball is so different and unconnected from medical school, that most students shy away from it. It’s foreign.
I found this isolation a boon! Here was a field that I could learn from the “ground up” and be really good at it! My lackluster medical interest up to this point wouldn’t be a hindrance. I could restart and reboot my medical career. This was a niche I could master and eventually teach.
I dove in and did my best! As I’ve already discussed, there weren’t a lot of great resources for new students, so I had to muddle my way through. I made a lot of mistakes and wasted my limited funds on confusing textbooks from the school’s bookstore.
I ran across a few malignant personalities, but by and large, eye doctors are a happy lot.
I picked ophthalmology very late in my training and so didn’t have much time to line up a residency position. My classmates had spent years studying and preparing for this. They had research papers, chapter publications, and had cozied up to key faculty members. They arranged their “away rotations” in prestigious eye clinics to improve their interview portfolio. I think they even had an ophthalmology club and a support group.
No such luck for me … I was late to the game and had to scramble into ophthalmology like a drowning man clawing his way onto the last lifeboat! I finally got into a residency position, thank goodness. But if I had known ophthalmology was my destiny, I would have approached medical school much differently and been better prepared.
I would have been happier, too, knowing that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Eye Residency Was Awesome
I ended up at an ophthalmology program at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. I spent four years in that town and loved it all. Good things happened (I fell in love for the first time), bad things happened (my heart was crushed for the first time), but mostly I grew up and became an eye doctor.
I had a lot of hiccups learning ophthalmology. It took me some time to get into the groove. I will always be thankful for the preceptors who took me under their wing and gave me a chance to prove myself.
Looking back, I realize that this was one of the happiest times of my life. Residency is a lot better than medical school. You work harder, but at least you have a defined job and expectations. Your performance is no longer determined by your ability to feign interest.
Augusta was a fun little town.
On weekends we’d canoe down the Savanna river and cook out on the rocks that jutted up from the white water. Tuesday nights were reserved for a tiny little Irish bar where the residents were serenaded by an infectious disease attending. He had the voice of an angel. A drunk, Irish angel.
The camaraderie you build with your fellow residents is powerful thing and you’ll never have anything quite like it ever again. I still miss those days. But you can never go back, can you?
What about these days?
I lucked out and joined a great ophthalmology group right out residency. Back in my home town, no less. I’ve been in private practice for nine years now. My group has doubled in size over the past decade. We’ve added optometrists and subspecialists and provide the majority of medical and surgical eye care for the greater Daytona Beach area.
I married my wife Catherine five years ago. She’s a banking lawyer who is much better at confrontation than I am. She has taught me a lot – I rarely pee on the toilet seat anymore. Catherine was a widow when I met her, with a little boy. He is now my son as well and he’s nine years old. We had another child two years ago. Life is good and I feel blessed to have such a family.
But what about the teaching?
Over the past eight years I’ve written a number of medical books, some geared toward students and others written for my patients. I’m about to release a new series of science fiction books geared toward young adults. I’m not sure if they’re any good, but novel writing has always been on my bucket list of things to try. Here’s the back cover in case you’re interested (click to enlarge):
Private practice has given me the opportunity to pursue a ton of fun projects, and my creative hunger has been thoroughly sated. Thanks to the internet, I can leverage my efforts and educate as many students as I want! I have no editors or academic affiliations to worry about, which gives me a great amount of freedom in how I teach.
My biggest hurdle these days is finding a healthy work-life balance … a common problem for all professionals, I suppose. I still haven’t figured it out, but I’m trying. Work is good and I enjoy what I do, though grinding through 200+ patient encounters a week can be exhausting.
Become an eye doctor! “See” the world!
If you are considering a career in this field, I say go for it! Medicine can be a tough road (it was for me) but it is getting better. Schools are embracing the online world of “new media” and I believe the quality of medical education is improving every year. Younger doctors are improving the academic landscape of medical school and the trickle-down culture of abuse is evaporating.
Looking back, I realize that many of the roadblocks I faced were self-created. Perhaps medical school wasn’t that bad. My tribulations may have been generated from my own self-doubt and quiet nature.
Ultimately, the biggest challenges we face in life are the ones inside of us. I almost missed out on this amazing career. Don’t let your personal doubts hold you back.
I wish you much success in your future endeavors. Whether you become an ophthalmologist, optometrist, or a technician … the eye has a lot to offer us all. There is much satisfaction to be gained by improving people’s vision.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story. If you’ve read this far, please feel free to drop me a line sometime. I’d love to hear your story, too.
~ Tim Root
TimRoot.com is your source for eye training videos, books, and software. Great for ophthalmology, optometry, or medical students who want to learn ocular pathology as quickly as possible!