Family History Inspired Eye Surgeon



Dr. Christian Risser followed in his grandfather's footsteps when he brought his ophthalmology practice to Payson more than two decades ago.

The year was 1980. Following a career in the military, Risser had a medical practice with his father in Sunnyslope, Ariz.

"My father still took care of a lot of people from Payson in his family practice," Risser said.

"Nan Pyle was one of his patients. (Pyle was an Eastern heiress who married cowboy Louis Pyle). She came down to see my dad, then she came over to see me."

Risser recalls her saying, "Now listen, you have a lot of heritage up there in Payson. Your grandfather and your father are from that area. We don't have an ophthalmologist up there and I think you should go up there and open an office."

Risser's grandfather came to Arizona in 1910 when it was still a territory. He first worked at the Indian hospital at Window Rock. On a trip through Payson in 1912, the elder Risser decided this was where he wanted to live and practice medicine.

Pictures at the eye clinic show off Risser's grandfather's home on the corner of Oak and Main streets; old medical instruments are displayed in a cabinet.

"My father was born in that house in 1919," Risser said.

Risser's grandfather was a country doctor and gentleman rancher until his death in 1933. He owned the ZN Ranch at the south end of town and the Cross Y Ranch, the area around the Elks Lodge, he homesteaded.

Encouraged by Pyle, Risser rented space from another doctor. He drove up Beeline Highway from the Valley a couple times a week. Several years later, he opened Risser Thomas Eye Clinic with Dr. Robert Thomas.

Risser's inspiration to become a doctor came from hearing stories about his grandfather and from his own father who was a general-practice surgeon.

From a young age, Risser had an affinity for detailed work. As a child, he assembled model airplanes from small parts. He supposed that his passion for intricacy combined with an early introduction to the medical field, fueled his desire to become an eye surgeon.

Risser remembered his father taking him and his sister, Prudy, along on calls.

"He made house calls, you know, so we'd sit outside somebody's house and wait in the car," Risser said, laughing at the memory.

"Sometimes that was pretty boring. Usually he'd get mad at us because we'd put the radio on and it would run down the battery."

Risser's father served on the staffs at all the hospitals in Phoenix.

"Usually Sunday morning we went with him. We'd go to church then we'd go all the way down to south Phoenix to St. Monica's hospital then all the way back to the old St. Joe's. Then we'd go to Good Sam."

The routine took most of the morning. He and his sister would wait with their mother in the hospital lobby. After his father was finished with his rounds, he would take his family out for breakfast.

"It was fun," Risser said.

His father believed that the scope of practice for general practitioners was going to become limited -- no longer would GPs be able to deliver babies and do tonsilectomies. He encouraged his son to specialize and consider becoming a surgeon.

Risser graduated from Arizona State University, then went to Creighton University to teach English.

Although encouraged to go into literature by an uncle who was a psychology professor, Risser chose medicine as his profession.

While attending medical school at the University of Tennessee, Risser assisted the chief of the department of ophthalmology on an article. His interest in the complexities of eye surgery was piqued, but it would be a few years before he would train in his speciality.

"After I finished medical school I did my internship in the Air Force down in San Antonio. I took my flight surgeon training at Brooks Air Force Base, then I served as the flight surgeon practicing general medicine for two years in Taiwan and a year at Luke (Air Force Base)."

Risser served during the Vietnam War. He was put on orders to fly with a Navy unit, and flew some missions into combat zones in Vietnamese territory.

Risser indicated flying was a real thrill, "If you are assigned to a fighter unit like I was, then you are in the back seat of an F4.

"We did patrol along the coast of Vietnam in Navy P-3s," Risser said. "They were radar search and sub chasing search planes. They could also do reconnaissance work. We would fly over to Vietnam, flying down about a 100 feet off the water along the beaches looking for sampans (long fishing boats) running guns ... the Vietcong had sampans that they had put Rolls Royce engines in. They would drift down the coast of South Vietnam and at night they would crank up those engines and head into the river deltas. Our job was to try to pick out the ones that were the bad guys and notify the Navy that they were there."

When his tour of duty ended, Risser was accepted into the Air Force residency program for ophthalmology back at in San Antonio where he completed three years of training for eye surgery.

Then he was stationed at a large Air Force hospital in WiesBaden in Germany from 1977 to 1980.

After more than 10 years active duty, Risser joined the Arizona Air National Guard's 161st refueling group -- the tanker unit stationed at Sky Harbor. His job included caring for the air crews, and he flew with them at least eight hours a month.

He served for a total of 28.5 years, retiring with the rank of colonel.

During his last five years of duty, he acted as the state air surgeon.

Now, in private practice, his work encompasses the modern corrective vision techniques of Lasik, Epi Lasik and PRK.

Although he finds these procedures interesting, Risser said the most frequent and rewarding procedure he does is cataract surgery.

"When a person has significantly decreased vision because of the cataract and they come back after surgery with drastically improved vision they feel they have been given something back that they lost," Risser said.

Risser compared the cataract correction technology in 1975, during his residency, when doctors made a large incision that required suturing.

"You took the lens out in one piece and you didn't have lens implants to put in," Risser said. "You basically fit people with contact lenses afterward or real thick glasses. You always had (patients) in the hospital at least three or four days."

Risser said in the 1950s and 60s, no implants were available. A patient's hospital stay, he said, was a miserable two-week ordeal.

Sandbags were placed next to the patient's head to keep it immobile while their eyes healed.

Now, according to Risser, a cataract incision is 2.85 millimeters versus the 11 to 12 of 20 years ago.

The operation that took an hour, now takes as little as 15 minutes. No sutures are required and the surgery is done on an outpatient basis.

Lens implants will last indefinitely, greatly improving the patient's post-operative vision.

"The lenses have just made a world of difference. You can use a different lens power to give someone normal vision who had basically been nearsighted all their life," Risser said. "It is just amazing."


Name: Christian Frederick Risser V, M.D.

Occupation: Ophthalmologist (Eye Surgeon)

Age: 63

Birthplace: St. Louis, Mo.

Family: Wife, Sharon; children, Christian, Heidi, Hans, Eric; grandchildren, two grandsons and two granddaughters

Personal mottos: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

Inspiration: My father and grandfather.

Greatest feat: My professional development.

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Trail riding, hunting, fishing and puttering around the ranch making sure things are working OK.

Three words that describe Christian Risser best (according to his wife Sharon): Very kind, compassionate, honorable person, happy.

I don't want to brag, but ... past president Phoenix Ophthalmologic Society, past president of the Arizona Ophthalmological Society, Fellow of American College of Surgeons, Fellow of American Academy of Ophthalmologist, Board certified by American College of Ophthalmologist

The person in history I'd most like to meet: My grandfather, Christian Hoffer Risser, M.D.

Luxury defined: Reading a book.

Dream vacation spot: We spent two years in the Far East and three years in Europe. If we took some time off, there are places in Europe we haven't seen. We'd probably go to Vienna or Switzerland.

Why Payson? Roots. My grandfather practiced and ranched here. My father was born and raised here. I like the place and the people.

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