December 12, 1977 12:00 PM

To see clearly again after cataract surgery, patients are faced with a Hobson’s choice. They can wear eyeglasses with lenses as thick as Coke bottles, or they can try contact lenses. Because most cataract patients are elderly, many find the tiny contacts too awkward to handle.

Dr. Mary Kay Michelis, a 37-year-old ophthalmologist in Long Beach, Calif., believes there’s a better alternative: a surgical technique called intraocular lens implant. When the patient’s natural lens has clouded over because of disease or aging, a permanent plastic replacement is inserted.

The first woman doctor in the U.S. to specialize in the operation, Dr. Michelis has performed or supervised some 2,000 of them to date. The surgery takes about 30 minutes and recovery usually is rapid. Cost ranges from $1,000 to $2,000.

Yet, for all their apparent advantages, intraocular implants remain highly controversial. Two years ago California’s health department, the strictest in the nation, sought to ban the operation. So many implants were being done, says Michelis, that the state “panicked” over its lack of control. It arbitrarily declared the artificial lens a “new drug” and ordered it off the market.

“Doctors all over the country were alarmed,” Michelis remembers. “We all felt that as California went, the whole country would go, since the federal Food and Drug Administration was watching to see what happened.”

Never one given to quiet acceptance of things, Kay Michelis used $5,000 of her own money to set up a legal trust to fight the ban. Through letters, phone calls and speaking trips to Washington, D.C., she resolved “to teach the public and the legislators that the lens is not a drug but a device. This surgery is incredibly beneficial to my patients. They don’t deserve to be deprived.”

The battle was won last year when Congress passed a bill assuring that “intraocular lenses remain reasonably available to all qualified ophthalmologists.” While the federal statutes preempt the state ruling, the controversy has not been stilled entirely. Last month the FDA declared that it would study the production quality of intraocular lenses, citing reports of “more than 100 serious injuries” (an estimated 250,000 Americans have received lens implants in the last 10 years). Dr. Michelis insists that implantation carries no greater risk than ordinary cataract surgery.

Born in Pittsburgh, the second of three daughters of millionaire industrialist Joseph F. Mulach Jr. and journalist Mary Dickson (her parents were divorced when she was 9), Kay wanted to be a doctor for as long as she can remember. “She used to operate on grasshoppers,” a sister recalls. After graduating from American University, Kay went to the Medical College of Pennsylvania for her M.D. In 1964 she married Dr. Michael Michelis, then a resident at a New York hospital. When he was drafted three years later, Kay volunteered to join the Army too, provided her husband was not sent to Vietnam. Together the Drs. Michelis served in a medical evacuation hospital in Japan, treating combat casualties.

Mustered out in 1969, they continued their training. Three years later their marriage failed. “I was becoming more secure, more independent, as a woman and a doctor,” she explains. “That’s not what Michael wanted.”

Kay took a trip to California, liked what she saw and stayed. Once a 190-pounder, she now rises at dawn for 20 laps in the backyard pool, and that, plus a rigorous protein diet, has slimmed her to 120. She paints, sculpts and is her own auto mechanic. A confessed car freak who raced a Lotus in high school, she owns a souped-up Citröen and a working replica of a Mercedes classic which she put together from a kit. “If you can take apart somebody’s eye and put it back together again,” she says, “you can do the same to a car.”

Her busy medical practice means 14-hour workdays. “I chose ophthalmology because it would give me a chance to have a family life,” the doctor observes ironically. She now shares her modern split-level house in Seal Beach with two dogs and six adopted stray cats. “Somehow I’ve gotten so absorbed with medicine I never have time for the other life.”

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