Animal Eye Doctor Sam Vainisi Handles Big Cases (elephants) and Tiny Ones (hummingbirds)

updated 06/25/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When ophthalmologist Sam Vainisi says that one of his patients has the eye of the tiger—or the eye of an eagle or moray eel or rat snake, for that matter—he is not just indulging in metaphor. Vainisi is a veterinary eye surgeon and is in such demand that patients fly, run, slither and hop from all over the country to his offices in a Chicago suburb and Green Bay, Wis.

Vainisi, 53, was one of the first veterinarians to perform operations on animals' eyes; until about 30 years ago, such diseased eyes were allowed to deteriorate, which often led to blindness. While 90 percent of his practice consists of domestic cats and dogs, he also treats such exotic beasts as three-toed sloths, horned owls and orangutans.

Elephants are a Vainisi specialty. The last one he operated on was 9,000-pound Ronnie, a 35-year-old with cataracts. The operation was performed in December 1982 on the cement floor of a warehouse in Venice, Fla. with Ronnie lying on six plastic-wrapped mattresses. Through a tube in his trunk Ronnie received oxygen, and through a vein in his ear he got enough anesthetic to knock out 1,000 people. By contrast, Vainisi that same week in Chicago repaired a punctured ulcer in the cornea of a one-ounce hummingbird. Both operations, large and small, were successful.

Some of Vainisi's work is done at his clinic in Green Bay, near the home he shares with his wife, Dorris, a former nurse. (Son Sam, 24, and daughter Jenny, 25, are away at school.) He spends three days a week in the Chicago area, teaching at the University of Illinois, seeing patients at his clinic in suburban Berwyn and treating animals at the Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos, and he makes calls at racetracks, circuses and zoos around the nation.

Vainisi's dad and mom ran a family-owned grocery and were "no great animal lovers," he says. His interest in veterinary medicine was awakened by summer jobs at the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago. He studied accounting at De Paul University but switched to Iowa State in his junior year to major in animal husbandry and wildlife management. He then moved on to Iowa State's veterinary school, taking with him a set of eye instruments he had purchased from an ophthalmologist's widow for $40. "When I got to school I found that the university did not have all these instruments," he recalls. "A staff member interested in ophthalmology said he would let me watch him perform eye surgery on dogs if I would let him use my instruments."

Animal eye-surgery techniques were primitive then. "It was an area of veterinary medicine really in need of some help," he says. "No one else was doing it." In 1970, 13 years after he got his vet's degree from Iowa State, Vainisi helped found the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists.

He moved to Green Bay at the suggestion of his late brother, Jack, a scout for the Packers. (Another brother, Jerry, is the Chicago Bears' general manager.) Green Bay is 200 miles from Chicago, but its environs are ideal for Vainisi's hobbies, hunting (pheasants) and fishing (trout and walleye).

Not all of his practice involves surgery. One call took him to Marineland, outside L.A., where a killer whale was being blinded by sunlight. Vainisi's Rx: paint the bottom of the pool black to reduce glare, and add an awning.

Vainisi's fees range up to $500, for elephant surgery, but his work can get scary: An eight-foot moray eel, with scalpel-sharp teeth, once started to come out of the anesthesia on the operating table—and was promptly knocked out again for his trouble. Vainisi thrives on the excitement though. He operated on a Siberian tiger for cataracts in 1974, and recalls, "A tiger is such a powerful beast that every time he exhaled the whole operating table would shudder. It was fantastic!"

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