If the eyes are window to the soul, one Riceboro man has been looking in the soul of Liberty County for almost two decades and has seen the importance of compassionate care.
With a firm handshake and a smile, Dr. Joseph Pittman simply introduces himself as Jody Pittman. It is probably not surprising that optometry was something he always wanted to do, from “probably 11 or 12 years old.”
“It was because my vision was bad,” Pittman explained. “And so, when I got my first pair of glasses, I could see so much better and I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
It was anchors aweigh for the Nashville, Ga.-native who shipped out to the U.S. Navy after high school. He went on to serve six years, but said he had a goal in mind.
“I had to do that to get the G.I. Bill to be able to afford to go to college,” Pittman said of his military service. “Back then, when I graduated (high school), we didn’t have the HOPE scholarship.”
Pittman kept a strict schedule in high school.
Here’s his answer when asked if he did any fun extracurriculars or clubs:
“No, I worked,” he said with a laugh. “We farmed and I worked at the boat plant.”
Determination and hard work made all the difference for Pittman, so it is almost no wonder that the doctor said his greatest disappointment is “watching young adults under perform.”
Aside from an eye exam, he makes it a point to ask his younger patients about their life aspirations and what they want to do after high school.
“I hate hearing, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I don’t care,’” Pittman said.
The active church member highlighted Proverbs 3:5-6 and Philippians 4:6-7 as his personal motivation that he tries to regularly tell himself.
“Some days I listen better than others,” he added with a laugh.
Good looking out
It’s hard to ignore an obvious compassion for those with bad or decreasing eye health when speaking with the doctor.
“You put your glasses on and you see fine. We deal with a lot of unhealthy eyes,” he said.
Pittman has experienced how blindness and decreasing sight affects some of his patients and their quality of life. Since he has been practicing, he has noticed it happening at a relatively younger age. He has connected the dots and pointed to a particular disease as the culprit.
“Diabetes is an epidemic now,” Pittman said. “We can’t talk about eye care without talking about blindness from diabetes.”
He quoted research that reports more than a third of Americans have prediabetes and a quarter of diabetics do not know they have the disease. He advocates for prevention and tries to encourage lifestyle changes, like low-sugar, balanced meals, less processed foods, and exercise.
“We have to stress the importance of managing their sugar levels or being compliant with their glaucoma drops and really teach them,” Pittman said.
Even with increased eye conditions, Pittman sees strides in treatment and treatment options.
“Medicine changes,” he said. “Look at what we do compared to what we used to do. We’re constantly making advancements in cataract surgery for glaucoma and diabetes.”
It’s a neat shift to witness, according to Pittman, as exams can become more thorough and more opportunities open up for in-house procedures, “that way, patients don’t have to drive out of town.”
The sitting in traffic and roughly hour-long drive is hard on older adults who may be dealing with swelling and back pain, Pittman explained. Even if those patients have someone else drive them to appointments, transportation can still cause problems.
Just in the last five years, his office has been able to bring in professionals from the Georgia Institute for Plastic Surgery and ophthalmologists from South East Eye to do more of those in-house procedures.
And he is not just looking at the eyes, but offers an examination of the face near the eyes.
“You’d be amazed at the skin cancer that we find,” Pittman said.
One of Pittman’s biggest commitments is making sure his patients are “not just another number.”
“I see these doctors and they work half a day,” Pittman explained. “They travel around to different towns and work half a day here and half a day there. Well, then, they jam-pack all their patients in and you’re just another number. It’s just ‘Hurry up and go.’”
Pittman said he wanted to offer something different.
“You get to be a friend and I get to know your family and everything,” he said of his practice. “And I like that.”
A new vision
It’s hard to miss Professional Eye Care building on Highway 84 with the big reflective panels on the roof. In February, Pittman’s practice became one of the first in the area to use solar power. And he is a strong supporter, encouraging others to follow suit.
“There is no reason any business owner should not go to solar power on their business,” Pittman said, mentioning the tax advantages. “You’re here at the business all day long and the solar panels work during the day time. So, it pays for itself.”
Believe it or not, Pittman said solar power was “my other interest as a child.”
“So, I like eyes and solar power. I’m a nerd,” he said.
The Professional Eye Care office went through a rebuild at one point. That’s when Pittman “looked in to it (solar power), thoroughly.”
“And it still cost too much. You had a nine-year break-even point,” Pittman said. “We’ve been watching it and every year, the price drops. So, now your break-even point becomes shorter and shorter.”
Without batting an eye
Originally from the Valdosta area, Pittman made Liberty County home after giving a glaucoma lecture in Statesboro. That meeting led Pittman to take over the practice, which originally started in 1964. He has been at the practice for 15 years.
He most enjoys the coast and pointed to another opportunity this area offers him.
“Being ex-military, I get to take care of the veterans. I like that. You have the best of both worlds. It’s about half and half. You got half active duty and half local people,” Pittman said, explaining how he likes to reminisce on his old military days with some of the soldiers.
His hobbies include hunting, fishing and “raising children.” He and his wife, Anne, are parents to a 17-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.
When he got out the military, Pittman went back to Valdosta to get his biology/pre-med degree from Valdosta State University. He got his medical degree from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tenn.