Dr. Ross J. Brechner, ophthalmologist and state epidemiologist, dies at 71

Dr. Ross J. Brechner (center)  in Vietnam

Dr. Ross Joseph Brechner, a mathematician turned ophthalmologist who abandoned private practice for a second career in public health, died Aug. 4 of heart disease at his Catonsville home.

He was 71.

"Ross was a fine ophthalmologist who changed careers late in life after being a highly trained epidemiologist. He was passionate about finding a better way to treat patients with a variety of diseases including blindness of the eyes," said Dr. Morton F. Goldberg, former director of the Wilmer Eye Institute and professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"He was also passionate about bringing better eye care to those who needed it both here and across the world," said Dr. Goldberg. "He was a multi-layered person who had a very quick mind."

"Ross was probably one of the few one-eyed ophthalmologists in the world," said his wife of 32 years, Frances Brousseau, an art historian. "When he was 3 years old, he ran into a pair of scissors and subsequently lost his eye."

The son of a dentist and a teacher, Dr. Brechner was born in St. Paul, Minn., and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he graduated in 1958 from Midwood High School.

Dr. Brechner earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1962 from Princeton University

He worked for the next two years as an actuary and mathematician for the Equitable Life Assurance Society in New York City.

In 1967, he earned a master's degree in biostatistics from Tulane University, while working as an instructor in biostatistics for the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the National Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta.

Dr. Brechner earned his medical degree in 1969 from Tulane, and completed an internship in pediatrics at New York City's Bellevue Hospital.

He went back to New Orleans, where he completed an ophthalmological residency in 1973 at Tulane University Medical School, and then entered private practice.

Dr. Brechner left New Orleans in 1981 and moved to Evergreen, Colo., where he was CEO of Evergreen Eye Surgery Center.

From 1993 to 1994, he re-entered private practice in Alexandria, La., and then moved to Hillsdale, Mich., where he practiced from 1995 to 1998.

In 1998, Dr. Brechner moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where he served as a consultant to Arizona State Hospital and the Arizona Division of Behavioral Health Services.

In the wake of the 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks, Dr. Brechner was named state epidemiologist and laboratory terrorism preparedness director for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and also headed the Maryland State Biological Agent Registry Program from 2002 to 2004.

At the time of his death, Dr. Brechner, who had not retired, had been lead medical officer since 2004 for the National Coverage and Analysis Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Beginning in 1984, he traveled to Bhopal, India, as an eye consultant for the U.S. government, treating those with eye injuries after the Union Carbide chemical plant disaster.

He continued to take part in humanitarian medical missions until earlier this year, when Dr. Brechner returned to Haiti to treat victims of last year's earthquake.

"After the Bhopal disaster, my husband wanted to go to India to see what the U.S. government needed to do, and he asked Ross to go along," said Nina Solarz, whose late husband, Stephen J. Solarz, was a New York congressman and a lifelong friend.

"Because of the extensive eye injuries, he asked Ross to go, and he quickly said, 'I'm coming,'" said Mrs. Solarz.

"Ross did all of these humanitarian missions without urging. He saw the need, picked himself up and went," she said. "He was never paid for any of this and did it on his own. He was always giving of himself."

Dr. Brechner also accompanied the congressman, whom he had known since he was 6, on diplomatic missions to South Africa, the former Soviet Union and Indonesia.

He also traveled to Uzbekistan, Egypt, Tibet and Vietnam on medical missions.

Since 1977, Dr. Brechner had gone on more than 80 volunteer ophthalmic surgical missions to Mexico with an old friend, Dr. Thomas R. Robinson, a retired Alexandria, Va., ophthalmologist.

He first became acquainted with Dr. Brechner during their days at Tulane, when Dr. Robinson was chief resident.

"We began talking about my trips to Mexico, and he said he wanted to participate. Because he only had one eye, we had him complete some additional surgical training. He also used special equipment and he became an excellent eye surgeon," said Dr. Robinson.

"We enjoyed going to Mexico where he did thousands of cataract surgeries," he said. "He found this so gratifying."

Dr. Robinson recalled a case when he was certain that a patient could not neurologically see and therefore was not a candidate for surgery, but Dr. Brechner persisted.

"I remember when he took off the bandages and asked the patient what the color was of his scrubs. He replied, 'Green.' Ross then asked the color of his tie, he replied, 'Black,'" said Dr. Robinson. "And then Ross started crying because he had restored the man's vision."

On another mission, an elderly blind Aztec woman who only spoke Nahuatl, an oral language, came to Drs. Robinson and Brechner.

"When the bandages were removed this woman, who had never spoken a word, began shouting, 'I can see! I can see!' This is why Ross went on these missions," Dr. Robinson said.

"The medical missions changed his life," said Ms. Brousseau.

He enjoyed running, hiking and collecting wines.

Services were Aug. 7.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Julie Schlegel of Columbia, S.C., and Kary Berry of Littleton, Colo.; a brother, David Brechner of Phoenix; and five grandchildren. An earlier marriage to the former Jean Monovan ended in divorce.