Debra Cannamore Lee woke up with a headache that would not go away one Sunday morning in 1986. The pain became so unbearable that she went to the emergency room at Deaconess Hospital. The doctors sent Lee home with some migraine medication that did not help. The next day she went to another hospital, Central Medical Center, where they ordered more X-rays but still could not find the cause.
Lee started to lose her vision, and the puzzled treating physician called in ophthalmologist Dr. Garey Lynn Clifford Watkins.
“As soon as he looked into my eyes, Dr. Watkins saw that the vision loss had been caused by bleeding of a blood vessel – a leak somewhere in my brain,” Lee wrote in her memoir titled “Grandma Debbie: the Cradle of Life.”
Dr. Watkins rushed her to St. Louis University Hospital and alerted her family that she had a brain aneurysm and might not make it.
“He even rode with me in the ambulance to the other hospital,” she wrote.
Dr. Watkins saved Lee’s life that day, as he has for many others in his more than 40 years as an ophthalmologist.
On Friday, April 27, Dr. Watkins will receive the Lifetime Achiever in Health Care Award at the 18th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon at the Frontenac Hilton. Net proceeds from the event support the St. Louis American Foundation, which fostered more than $750,000 in community grants and scholarships for area youth in 2017.
“I’m beginning to turn over a new page,” said Dr. Watkins, who is moving towards retirement. “My job now is to keep this vision going. I want to help others to proceed on. Now is the time for the younger folks to come and keep it going, especially those in the Afro-American community.”
Born in Cairo, Illinois, Dr. Watkins was raised by two educator parents who both attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His father graduated from Tuskegee University and his mother, from Lane College. Salaries for black educators were meager back then, he said, so his parents worked hard to be able to afford to send him off to Meharry Medical College – also a HBCU – in Nashville in 1971.
Nearing graduation, he met a black ophthalmologist – the first he had ever seen.
“I liked the way he carried himself and the outcome of his patients,” Dr. Watkins said. “They were so happy. When I finished medical school, there was not an opportunity for anyone to become an ophthalmologist that looked like me, other than this doctor.”
Dr. Watkins asked the man where could he go to learn how to be an ophthalmologist, and he told him about Homer G. Phillips Hospital.
“I applied and, lo and behold, I was accepted,” Dr. Watkins said. “That was one of the best days of my life, besides marrying my wife and my children being born. I always wanted to serve, and I wanted to use all the talents that I was given by God to serve. This seemed like the best avenue for me at the time.”
At Homer G. Phillips, Dr. Watkins completed his general rotating internship in 1972 and ophthalmology residency in 1975.
“Homer G. Phillips was fantastic because I was surrounded by people who looked like me and who were experts in their fields,” Dr. Watkins said. “They carried themselves so professionally. I learned so much. I just passed my boards just like that.”
In 1972, Dr. Watkins joined the U.S. Army Reserve during the Vietnam War as a second lieutenant in the Medical Corps, serving at the 25th Combat Support Hospital.
“I enjoyed the camaraderie of the military,” he said.
He stayed on as a reservist for 8 years, even after he started his private practice in 1976. He was honorably discharged as a lieutenant colonel in 1980, but that was actually only the beginning of his time with the military.
“As the years went by, I looked up and I had become like a spokesperson in ophthalmology to the Department of Defense,” Dr. Watkins said. “And then I looked up again, it was 30 years.”
Dr. Watkins began serving as the chief medical officer at the St. Louis Military Entrance Processing Station in 1980, where he served for more than three decades. During his tenure, Dr. Watkins performed and supervised more than 340,000 physical examinations for entrance into all branches of the military. The U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command selected Dr. Watkins as its “subject matter expert” for all ophthalmological concerns and the master trainer for newly assigned chief medical officers and fee basis providers. Dr. Watkins trained hundreds of military inter-service recruiters on medical standards.
Dr. Watkins has long been a strong advocate for getting more African Americans into his field, which he talks about in a book he co-authored, “Breaking the Color Line in Medicine: African Americans in Ophthalmology.” He is working with Washington University, where he also trained, to continue an endowment that his mentor, Dr. Howard Venable, established for African-American students in ophthalmology.
Dr. Watkins donated much of his professional equipment to the St. Louis Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and he’s passionate about making sure the African-American community is aware of the society’s many services.
Dr. Watkins was surprised to learn he had been selected to receive the Lifetime Achiever Award because he and his wife, Karen Morris Watkins, are “usually in the background trying to support.”
Karen, who he calls “my star,” is a retired teacher and administrator from the Ladue School District, and she also served as an office administrator at his private practice. Karen and Garey were “high school sweethearts” at Lincoln Senior High School in East St. Louis. They celebrated 50 years of marriage in December.
“My proudest accomplishment is getting my wife to marry me,” Dr. Watkins said. “And then to have two wonderful children, and then from there the grandchildren.”
His son, Garey Watkins II, works in aviation safety at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport. His daughter, Dr. Lynette M. Watkins, recently became the first female African-American chief medical officer at Baptist Health System in San Antonio, Texas.
“I was put here for a purpose, and I was happy I was able to help folks,” he said. “But other than that, when it’s all said and done, my legacy comes from God giving me this wonderful woman and these wonderful babies.”
Tickets for the 18th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon on Friday, April 27 at the Frontenac Hilton are $750 per table for VIP/Corporate seating and $50 each/$500 table for Individual seating. To order tickets, call 314-533-8000 or visit www.stlamerican.com.