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Kiawah Island couple's gift makes groundbreaking cataract surgery possible at MUSC

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Bill and Ruth Baker’s gift, which made groundbreaking surgery possible for cataract patients in South Carolina, began with some doctor’s office banter.

Mr. Baker had come in for a regular eye exam with Dr. George O. Waring IV, medical director of MUSC’s Magill Vision Center. Dr. Waring took Mr. Baker through a series of machines that provides a digital tour of the eye, down to the nutritional health. At the end, Dr. Waring said, “You’ve just received the finest eye exam you’ve ever had.”

Mr. Baker chuckled but listened closely, as Dr. Waring explained that the Magill Vision Center was the first center in the state to provide LASIK vision correction surgery, and that Magill offers the most advanced LASIK technology in the country. Dr. Waring wanted to provide that same level of technology for cataract patients, who suffer from a cloudy lens that distorts and blurs their vision. He knew that Mrs. Baker had served on the Storm Eye Institute Board of Directors for nearly a decade and that Mr. Baker was an emeritus member of the MUSC Foundation Board, so Dr. Waring shared his ideas for new technology during Mr. Baker's visit.

“He had that vision and knowledge,” Dr. Waring said. “He really gets it.”  Mr. Baker decided he wanted to provide not only advice but financial support to bring the new cataract treatment to MUSC.

                                                                                        Ruth and Bill Baker

The $500,000 Catalys Precision Laser System from OptiMedica looks more like a red filing cabinet than the most advanced cataract laser system available, but it provides precision beyond the capabilities of the human hand. Although the most common surgical procedure in the world, cataract surgery is also a delicate process likened to cutting the skin of a grape without disturbing the flesh of the fruit.

Historically, a surgeon has performed the entire procedure by hand. With the Catalys machine, lasers make the incision, correct the patient’s astigmatism and soften the cataract to prepare for the operating room, where a surgeon touches the eye for the first time by removing the softened cataract and inserting a new lens. The entire process takes only about 15 minutes. The patient remains awake and recovers immediately, the blurred vision of a cloudy lens only a memory.

The Bakers set up a challenge grant in May, providing $250,000 in seed money to bring the Catalys machine to the Magill Vision Center in August. The fundraising challenge to keep the technology at MUSC runs through November, and the Bakers continue to rally support for the project in the meantime. “It’s really exciting technology, and we felt very fortunate to be a part of it,” Mr. Baker said.

Dr. Waring estimates that he and his colleagues will have performed 75 Catalys procedures by the end of this month. “If it weren’t for the Bakers, we couldn’t offer this procedure to our patients,” he said. “Now we can offer this procedure to the whole country.”

The Bakers met in 1997 at Kiawah Island where Ruth, a widow, had retired and Bill, a widower, had a second home. Ruth convinced Bill to become a full-time resident, and they married in 1999. Together, they decided to become a part of fabric of their new Charleston community.

“We both like to play, but we believe there’s a commitment in life,” Mrs. Baker said.

In addition to joining several philanthropic organizations, the couple set up a small nonprofit organization called the Bill and Ruth Baker Foundation, which provides housing and education to some of the indigent people who live just beyond the gates of Kiawah Island, primarily on rural Johns Island. Although Bill has six children, 13 grandchildren and a great-grandchild, the Bakers also like to say that they have one child in college. 

The Bakers initially met that young man’s family when they agreed to buy a new mobile home to replace the insect-infested rental unit where two parents and their three children had been living. The oldest son, then 13, translated his parents’ Spanish for the Bakers during their meetings.

The boy kept in touch with the couple as the years passed. When he told the Bakers that he wanted to go to college but couldn’t get accepted into South Carolina schools as an undocumented immigrant, they helped him get his education at a private school in Alabama.

From their college “son” to the Catalys machine, the Bakers regard their work as both a passion and a pledge.

“There are points in people’s lives where you realize that, for the want of money, you can change people’s lives,” Mr. Baker said.