Father and Son Follow Different Paths to Ophthalmology, Team Up at Jones Eye Institute

By Benjamin Waldrum

In the mid-1990s, Joseph Chacko was working in Arizona as a staff ophthalmologist at Phoenix Indian Medical Center, a part of the Indian Health Service within the U.S. Public Health Service. It wasn’t long before he began bringing a young “assistant” to work with him.

“When Tony was about 2 years old and walking, I would take him to see the post-op patients on Saturday mornings,” said Joseph Chacko. “He would help me by handing me cotton swabs so that I could lift the patient’s eyelid. That was his first introduction to eye patients. At age 3 he would put on a shirt and a little tie, and act like he was going to work.”

Medicine is a demanding career that often limits family time. For the Chacko family, that was never an issue — something the younger Chacko said he’s grateful for.

“Growing up, I always had a high respect for my father and mother, knowing that it’s such a rewarding career in ophthalmology to be able to help people and restore vision,” Tony Chacko said. “Also, my father was around in my life. Being able to dedicate his career to his patients, but also being able to be at home or coach my baseball team, was very special for me.”

Joseph Chacko holds the Sally McSpadden Boreham Endowed Chair in Ophthalmology and is director of neuro-ophthalmology at the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute. His distinguished career at UAMS began in 2005, when the family moved to Little Rock from Miami, Florida, where Chacko had just completed a neuro-ophthalmology fellowship.

The Chackos share a laugh at Jones Eye Institute.

The Chackos share a laugh at Jones Eye Institute.Benjamin Waldrum

“I’ve been with Jones Eye for 18 years, and Tony has kind of grown up in the department,” Joseph Chacko said. “The faculty have known him over the years. He’s grown up with them, playing in golf tournaments and softball games, picnics and things like that. I think that’s the cool thing about all this — that he’s JEI family even from that far back.”

It’s been a family affair at the Jones Eye Institute. Terry Chacko, wife of Joseph and mother of Tony, worked at the institute for six years before retiring, making serum eye drops for dry eye patients. Tony Chacko came to ophthalmology gradually, after considering many options, including sports medicine and orthopaedics.

The younger Chacko attended the University of Arkansas, where he was in the Honors College and majored in biology. When he began medical school in the UAMS College of Medicine in 2018, he kept an open mind about his future.

“I didn’t start medical school knowing that I wanted to do ophthalmology,” Chacko said. “I really started shadowing my father when I was in college, along with two or three other faculty members here at Jones Eye and others at UAMS. But then in my third year, I really started crossing things off the list, and my thoughts kept going back to ophthalmology.”

Participating in ophthalmology rotations was the first sign he was on the right path. Working alongside Jones Eye Institute faculty and seeing the difference they made had an impact on him.

“My dad always told me to choose a career where you want to go to work on Monday,” Tony Chacko said. “When that alarm clock goes off, you’re excited and ready to go to work, because you’re passionate about what you’re doing and having an impact on others.”

The younger Chacko graduated from the UAMS College of Medicine in 2022 with honors in research. He interviewed with 10 programs for an ophthalmology residency, before his match was revealed as UAMS. Now, he’s completing his first year at the Eye Institute as an ophthalmology resident.

“We really thought he was going to match elsewhere,” Joseph Chacko said. “It was really a big surprise that he matched here at UAMS. It turned out to be the greatest thing, because we all love having him around here, and he loves Little Rock too. He’s a great fit for UAMS.”

“I am very thankful to have matched at such a great program here at Jones Eye,” Tony Chacko said. “We have an incredible culture, a collegiality and friendliness. It’s just been great getting to know the residents and working with them. It’s a very healthy learning environment. I’m excited to be part of this program and learn from our well-experienced faculty.”

Both men also have something else in common: a love of community outreach. They have collaborated with the River City Ministry Sight Savers program in North Little Rock. Each has also assisted with the ongoing Gift of Sight program at the Eye Institute that helps restore sight to Pacific Islander patients living in Northwest Arkansas.

Since 1997, the elder Chacko has made annual weeklong summer trips to Ghana and Guatemala to restore sight to patients in those areas. For three years, Tony Chacko has gone along too. It was the mission trips that clinched his decision to take up a career in ophthalmology.

“I was able to watch my father perform a cataract surgery that allowed a grandfather to see his grandchildren for the first time,” Tony Chacko said. “That was just very inspiring, that you can have such a tangible effect on people’s lives.”

Today, father and son are happy they get to work together and see each other so often.

“We’ll discuss interesting cases and also different research projects and papers, and things like that,” Tony Chacko said. “But we also really enjoy sports. We’ll get together on Sundays and play flag football with friends and other members of the department, which is a lot of fun. Recently we played a doubles tennis tournament together, which was really special.”

“It feels great,” Joseph Chacko said. “I’ve always talked well about ophthalmology, and I think it’s just rubbed off. I think it’s been a natural thing for Tony. I’m happy that he went into the specialty, and I’m happy that I went into it too.”