Eye-Opening Year: La Jolla ophthalmologist experiences highs and lows in 2015

Thus far, 2015 has been a tumultuous year for La Jolla ophthalmologist Renata Ochabski: She started her first year as head of the Polish Medical Association, received a couple of honorariums from political officials, and saved her husband’s life during his heart attack.

A native of Poland, Ochabski has had a practice on Girard Avenue for 15 years, screening patients for and treating eye conditions. She said she came to America in 1981 and immediately felt patriotism for her new home. She and husband, George Juchum constantly work to better the lives of Polish people in America, according to her accolades.

In December 2014, Ochabski was picked to chair the Polish Medical Association and as her first project, she established a website to highlight member achievements.

Her own such moment came when, representing the Polish Medical Association, she spoke at a Citizenship Ceremony in March, where 1,000 people were nominated to become American citizens.

“I knew what I wanted to say to these people starting their new lives ... but when I got up and saw those thousand people in front of me, I remembered when I was in their spot, and I started to cry,” she said.

That same month, Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA 50th District) gave Ochabski Congressional recognition. “Renata has been a strong advocate in both the medical and the Polish communities, and Congressman Hunter tries to recognize those people who are working hard to better their communities,” said his deputy chief of staff, Mike Harrison.

The next month, California State Senator Joel Anderson (R-38th District) followed suit. He gave Ochabski a Senate resolution for her community leadership. She got the opportunity to visit the Senate floor and see the political process in action.

Family Crisis

A less enjoyable moment came after a fundraising party at her La Mesa home in March, when her husband experienced a heart problem. As her husband recalled, “We were having a great time hosting this party, but as the guests were leaving, I felt some pain in my chest. Since there were still guests present, I excused myself and sat down.” He then fell asleep in an armchair.

Ochabski added, “Because we had been running around planning the party, I didn’t think twice when he fell asleep in a chair. I thought he would come to bed at some point in the night, so I went to bed, and don’t ask me how or why, but I woke up in the middle of the night and knew something was not right. I went to look for him, and when I found him, he was folded in half and soaking wet with sweat.” Acting as a wife instead of a physician, she called 911 and reported her husband’s symptoms.

But as paramedics hooked him up to monitors, the doctor in Ochabski kicked in. “I noticed they were showing he had premature ventricular contractions and atrial fibrillation — so his ventricles and atriums were working completely out of sync,” she said. “I told the ER doctor and George underwent exploratory heart surgery the next day. They found his right coronary artery was completely closed.” Juchum has since recovered, and now calls Ochabski “my angel.”

Coming to America

Ochabski said she began her medical career in Poland as a pediatrician, graduating from the Medical university of Silesia. She and her then-husband came to the united States in 1981, ahead of the martial law set by the Communist government (1981-1983). They sought political asylum, hoping her medical background would make her a desirable candidate for the united States. After a nerve-wracking process, she said, she was granted asylum and made her way to America.

“There was such oppression in Poland, so when we were applying for asylum, we didn’t know what was real or who was watching us. When we got to go, it was so nice,” she said.

She and her family lived in Springfield, Missouri, where they were immersed in the english language. In 1986, she divorced, and she and her son moved to Brea, California.

A newly single mother, Ochabski sought a better job in the medical field, and found that uC San Diego had openings for technicians and ophthalmologists. She underwent the necessary training and worked at UCSD from 1987 to 1996. During her employment, she often allowed students to shadow her or assisted international students without charging them. “If you can improve someone’s quality of life, why not do so?” she said.

In 1996, she moved to Bakersfield for a year to study general surgery before moving back to San Diego to complete three years of residency at uCSD.

In 2000, she opened her ophthalmology practice, eye M.D. of La Jolla, where she continues to serve residents. The chief concern among her patients is treating glaucoma.

“Glaucoma is a silent disease and patients do not know they are sick until it’s too late ... there is no pain or change in vision,” Ochabski said. “I can’t stress regular exams enough ... people come to me and say they had their eyes checked 10 years ago. However, with regular eye exams, you catch things early and treat them early, and your treatment success rate is much better.

“Starting at age 40 — if there is no issue or family history of eye problems — get your eyes checked once every two or three years. From age 50, get them checked every year.”

She offered another bit of medical advice, “Take vitamins! There are multivitamins with lutein and hypoxanthine that are very beneficial.” She said peaches and kale contain nutrients that are also very good for the eyes.