February 24, 2020

John D. Sheppard, MD, MMSc


President and Founding Partner, Virginia Eye Consultants; Professor of Ophthalmology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology, Eastern Virginia Medical School

A plumber with a painful corneal ulcer who, despite working 80 hours a week to support his family, couldn’t afford health insurance. A 22-year-old woman who was blinded at age 7 in a school assault, when part of a pencil broke off in her eye; she grew up hiding the injury behind her hair. People who have lost their jobs or the ability to drive, all due to treatable vision problems. 

Every year, Dr. Sheppard and colleagues at Virginia Eye Consultants select about 50 such people from a pool of 200-plus applicants. All are uninsured, underinsured or financially unable to pay for care that often could save their sight – and transform their lives.

“This work never ceases to be rewarding,” says Dr. Sheppard, who leads VEC’s team of 18 specialty providers and 210 staff. “Most of these patients are the working poor who simply don’t have good access to health care. They are tremendously deserving of our help.”

Since 2013, more than 250 local patients have received upward of $500,000 in donated care, including corneal transplants; cataract, glaucoma, retinal and laser surgeries; and ongoing management of diabetes-related vision concerns. The plumber has a functional eye again, minus what would have been $50,000 in medical bills. The young woman has a custom-fit glass eye and has shared her story at VEC charity fundraisers. “Her self-esteem has skyrocketed,” Dr. Sheppard notes. 

Community service has long been important to Dr. Sheppard, an acclaimed researcher, author and instructor who has held his post at VEC for nearly 30 years. He also serves as president of the Virginia Eye Foundation, which raises money for individual patients; delivers grants and optical equipment to free clinics; offers workshops on medical advances to local providers; and awards college scholarships to gifted high school students interested in medical careers.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Dr. Sheppard himself decided to become a doctor in fifth grade after writing a report on the human heart. He also had a neighborhood friend whose father was an ophthalmologist and lined up a summer job for him at a nearby hospital. By age 18, Dr. Sheppard had assisted a glaucoma specialist with research and observed several eye surgeries, including one memorable procedure on a patient blinded in a lawnmower accident. 

“After that, I didn’t want to do anything else but immerse myself in hospitals and labs,” he recalls.

Ophthalmology also drew on Dr. Sheppard’s interest and skill in the visual arts, including drawing and architecture. “The first time I saw an eye – an iris – through a slit-lamp biomicroscope, I was fascinated by the intricacy and beauty of its muscular architecture,” he notes.   

Dr. Sheppard earned undergraduate, medical and master’s degrees from Brown University on a full Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship. During four years in the Navy, his posts included 6th Fleet Medical Officer, where he gained valuable experience in trauma surgery. He then completed an ophthalmology residency at the University of Pittsburgh Eye and Ear Institute and a 30-month fellowship in corneal diseases and uveitis at the Proctor Foundation for Research in Ophthalmology at the University of California San Francisco. 

At VEC, Dr. Sheppard has been principal investigator in more than 120 clinical research trials for major pharmaceutical companies and the FDA. He also has presented 700-plus invited lectures worldwide and served as a volunteer faculty member at Eastern Virginia Medical School since 1989. 

No matter how busy he gets, however, giving back remains a priority. “I’ll do this as long as I’m in practice,” he says, “and I hope this program continues long after I’m gone.”