Dr. David Shoemaker walked into work one day several years ago and saw his fellow eye surgeon at Center for Sight, Dr. Bill Lahners, with his arm in a sling and a cat-ate-the-canary kind of grin. Shoemaker braced himself for a classic Bill Lahners tale, and he got one: turns out his colleague busted up his arm riding a bull in the French Quarter of New Orleans over the weekend.
“He popped his arm back in place and was ready to go work,” recalls Shoemaker, who founded Center for Sight, which is the founding member practice of Sarasota-based US Eye. US Eye includes 53 offices and five ambulatory surgery centers across the Southeast.
Lahners, who Shoemaker says was the guy everyone loved to have a drink with, not only lived an adventurous life with the stories to boot. Lahners was also a well-accomplished, beloved and pioneering ophthalmologist and business leader — facets that came second to being a devoted father, husband and son, say several people who knew him. Lahners died Dec. 10 while on a trip in the Bahamas. He was 53.
“Dr. Lahners was a beloved member of our team, respected and admired by patients and colleagues alike,” stated a Dec. 12 Facebook post from Center for Sight, which has a main Sarasota office on 2601 S. Tamiami Trail. “Not only was he a skilled surgeon, but he was a compassionate and dedicated provider. He will be greatly missed at Center For Sight and in the ophthalmology community. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Lahners knew he wanted to be an eye doctor when he was second grade, says his wife Crystal Lahners. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and his medical degree from Louisiana State University. He then had a combined internship in Medicine and Surgery at the Mayo Clinic, a residency in ophthalmology at Emory University and a fellowship at Minnesota Eye Consultants.
Lahners was one of Shoemaker’s first physician partners at Center for Sight, joining the practice some 20 years ago. The practice has since grown 10 times as big, to one of the largest eye care and LASIK surgery practices in the country. Shoemaker says when Lahners put his mind to something, whatever the task was, from growing the practice to researching a new procedure, he was 100% all-in. “He didn’t just dabble in things,” Shoemaker says. “He had a plan. And then he executed the plan. There was no holding back. He was amazing.”
Lahners, according to his medical bio, was the first surgeon on the west coast of Florida to use Femtosecond Lasers technology in All-Laser LASIK surgery and the fifth surgeon in the country to perform laser-assisted corneal transplant surgery. He was a sought-after speaker in the field, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology awarded him the Achievement Award for his research and presentations on cataract surgery and LASIK.
Dozens of Lahners’ patients and friends in the Sarasota community posted about him on Facebook upon learning the news. In addition to his patients, Lahners was the medical director of the practice and often regularly oversaw free cataract surgery for uninsured patients.
“Dr. Lahners was an incredible human being,” wrote Sarasota native Nik Wallenda. The tightrope-walking celebrity had LASIK surgery in 2013, done by Lahners, and later starred in a promotional video for the practice. “His legacy will live on forever in our lives and in our hearts. Praying for the Lahners. Rest in peace my dear friend.”
Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler reposted Center for Sight’s post on Lahners with the message “Sarasota County has lost one of the best among us. Bill Lahners may have been the best LASIK/Cataract Surgeon in the country, but he was an even better man, husband and father. Prayers for his incredible wife Crystal and their children as they navigate this going forward.”
Sarasota entrepreneur and real estate investor Jesse Biter met Lahners about 15 years ago and the pair — both airplane pilots — became fast friends. The Biter and Lahners’ families went on trips to together often, from skiing in Colorado to New York City to the Caribbean. One of the last trips Biter and Lahners took together was in October to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to see the LSU Tigers play the UF Gators. “He was a super smart guy and super dedicated father,” says Biter. “He loved everything he did and was larger than life.”
Shoemaker says he will miss the larger-than-life side of Lahners, in addition to missing his stories, his work ethic, his subject-matter expertise on nearly anything he put his mind to and his friendship. Says Shoemaker: “Everyone Bill touched is experiencing a great loss.”