Eye doctor and car show organizer takes visionary approach to his work

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 7, 2021

 Philip Hessburg addresses attendees during an EyesOn Design event.

Philip Hessburg addresses attendees during an EyesOn Design event.

Photo provided by Kathy Pecar Lightbody

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GROSSE POINTES — He might not be featured on the cover of national magazines or have his own TED Talk, but if sight is one day restored to the blind and visually impaired, Philip Hessburg will have played an important role in it.

The Grosse Pointe Park ophthalmologist won’t take credit for it, but the biennial research congresses he organizes have made tremendous strides in the field of artificial vision since they started circa 2000. Paid for by money raised during EyesOn Design — an acclaimed automotive design-themed car show that this year will take place Sept. 19 — the congresses alternate each year between “The Eye and the Chip” and “The Eye, the Brain and the Auto.”

The congresses grew out of Hessburg’s work with the Grosse Pointe Park-based nonprofit Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, which he founded in 1972. The DIO, which focuses on education, research and assistance to the blind and visually impaired, is now part of the Department of Ophthalmology at Henry Ford Health System.

David J. Goldman, vice chair for education in the Department of Ophthalmology at Henry Ford Hospital, has known Hessburg for more than 10 years. By email, he said Hessburg is “an influential, inspirational and innovative physician — truly devoted to the field of ophthalmology” and an advocate for proper patient care.

“He is a role model for every young physician committed to the field of medicine,” Goldman said in an email interview. “We are fortunate to have his mentorship within our department.”

A former president of the Michigan Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, Hessburg has earned many local, state and national awards, including some from the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery and the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

In 2019, Hessburg was honored by the board of the Michigan Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons for his “lifetime of service, extraordinary achievements and visionary contributions to ophthalmology.”

“The world congress on artificial vision, The Eye and The Chip, is literally considered the world’s most important and influential meeting to advance this field,” Goldman said by email. “Dr. Hessburg’s vision to create this event and fortitude to fight through the naysayers and financial obstacles in putting together such an event is a testament to his passion to make a significant impact on reducing the burden of vision loss to individuals.”

By bringing together researchers from across the globe, they’re able to share their work with each other and make advancements that might not have been possible if they had all been working separately.

“Most of his successes are blanketed by anonymity, further highlighting his altruistic approach,” Goldman said in an email. “In the field of artificial vision, the partnerships and collaboration of ideas that have grown out of the world congresses have accelerated advancements in the field. Dr. Hessburg is at the heart of each of these relationships.”

Despite his accolades, Hessburg is remarkably “unpretentious,” said EyesOn Design Chair Kathy Pecar Lightbody, a former Grosse Pointe Park resident who recently moved to Mancelona Township. Pecar Lightbody has known Hessburg her entire life; he was a close friend of her late father, Allen Pecar.

“He has a humility (to him),” Pecar Lightbody said. “He is limitlessly approachable. His cause is his purpose. He’s not doing it for accolades.”

A graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and the medical school at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Hessburg served as a flight surgeon in the United States Air Force before his family moved to Michigan so he could complete a four-year ophthalmology residency at Henry Ford Hospital. He and his wife, Betsy, have five adult children, 17 grandchildren and a handful of great-grandchildren.

He likes to say that he met his wife “at an insane asylum,” and it’s true. He was a medical student and Betsy Haupt was a social worker at the Hospital for Mental Disease in Milwaukee when they met.

“Except for my wife, ophthalmology was the best choice I ever made,” said Hessburg, who was drawn to the field because he wanted to be able to assist patients of all ages and genders, and to be able to do surgical as well as other medical work.

In November, Hessburg and his wife will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. They remain exceptionally close.

“You’ll never see them walking without holding hands,” daughter Soozi Hampton, of Grosse Pointe Park, said.

Although son Tom Hessburg, of Grosse Pointe Park, said he and his sibling “all went in completely different directions” careerwise, he followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an ophthalmologist. He said his dad “did a lot of research when he was younger and invented some medical devices.”

These include the Hessburg anterior chamber interlocular lens. Hessburg has also written book chapters on ophthalmological topics and published more than 50 scientific papers.

“I tried retirement once, but I flunked it badly,” said Hessburg with a laugh, recounting his attempt to retire at age 65. “After two weeks, I knew that (it wasn’t for me).”

At 91, Hessburg no longer sees patients, but he’s still the medical director of the DIO, and he’s also still working tirelessly behind the scenes to organize EyesOn Design and the world congresses.

“He is the most brilliant and giving man you’ll ever meet, and has the biggest passion for people who are visually impaired,” Hampton said. “He has devoted his life to the visually impaired. And he’s the busiest man I know.”

From automotive leaders to leaders in medicine, Hessburg has amassed a vast array of loyal contacts who have supported his work

“I have had the opportunity to learn from many great people throughout my career and Dr. Hessburg is among my most favorite,” said Bob Riney, president of health care operations and chief operating officer of Henry Ford Health System, via email. “His passion and unwavering energy and commitment to advancing medicine and supporting great causes for the community is unparalleled. He loves his work, his family and his Grosse Pointe community and never pauses in his determination to make a positive difference.”

Normally held on Father’s Day, this year’s EyesOn Design car show will take place from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Sept. 19 on the grounds of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores. Admission costs $30 for adults and is free to children ages 10 and younger with an adult. Tickets can be purchased at the gate.

This year’s theme is “Marques of Extinction: Significant Designs of Bygone Brands.” More than 250 unique vehicles, including the Oldsmobile-created 1930 Viking Eight and an original, unrestored black 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge convertible, will be on view.

“The caliber of cars that the show brings in is second to none,” Pecar Lightbody said. “We are a design-focused show. There’s no other show (that’s) 100% design focused.”

A popular brunch — during which attendees can mingle in a more intimate setting with auto designers — will also take place Sept. 19, but advance reservations are required for that. EyesOn Design was launched in 1987.

For someone who has been organizing a car show for decades, Hessburg is surprisingly indifferent when it comes to his own set of wheels.

“My dad couldn’t care less about cars,” Hampton said with a laugh.

Hessburg said driverless cars of the future might be able to transport a driver having a dizzy spell not only to a hospital, but to a hospital best suited to treat the driver’s medical emergency.

“The day will come when autonomous vehicles — that is, driverless cars — will play a big role in health care,” Hessburg said.

Hessburg is quick to credit the many volunteers who make EyesOn Design possible.

“We have gotten further down the road than you would think a little organization could,” Hessburg said of the DIO.

And through the relationships that he’s built and the work that he’s done to bring a diverse group of medical researchers and automotive designers together, Hessburg has paved the way for a world where vehicles will do more than transport people, and where the blind and visually impaired will be able to see.

“He’s a helper, he’s a giver, he’s a fixer,” Pecar Lightbody said. “He’s got no shortage of people who have called on him for his expertise, and he pursues a resolution for people in any way he can.”

For brunch tickets or more information about EyesOn Design, visit www.eyesondesign.org.

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