Do Anything You Set Your Mind To



Daughter of Dr. Charles Kelman

Sometimes, if I am in a quiet room, I can still hear my father singing.  His fingers move deftly over the piano keys as his melodious voice croons the song that he wrote just for me, “Lesley Ann…can…do anything she wants to…with me.”  That sweet tune is like so many gifts I received from my father. It is constant, because he played it almost every time I walked into the house, and now it plays in my head. It is lighthearted and fun yet makes me feel important like I am the President entering the room.  It is encouraging, giving me strength to accomplish my goals. It is inspiring, because it breathes with his love for me.  

My father’s prominence as a surgeon and entertainer brought fame and a fairly glamorous lifestyle. Sometimes it was difficult to have a dad who so completely stood out in the crowd. Other kids’ parents arrived for camp visiting day in their station wagons — mine arrived by helicopter. Other kids saw their fathers across the dinner table — I saw my father performing on David Letterman, Johnny Carson, or in Carnegie Hall.  When sports stars or heads of state visited our home, Dad treated them the same way he treated everyone — with humor, kindness, and a genuine interest in who they were.   

As a child, I spent a lot of time in the operating room with my father. I thought this was just part of a “normal” childhood. Dad’s operations began with his soothing voice and gentle touch. A typical patient would be named Sadie, Adele, Irving, or Harvey, as cataracts are most common with the elderly. Rubbing  “Sadie’s” cheek, he would say, “Now, Sadie, there is nothing to be nervous about. I am just going to look in your eye and put in a few drops. I will tell you when I start operating.” All the while, he was putting a needle in her eye and proceeding with his delicate operation. The first time I saw this I was shocked at how easily my dad would lie to his patients. When he would say, “OK, Sadie, I am ready to start,” she would tremble and say, “Oh, no doctor, I am so scared,” and he would pat her cheek a few times softly with his open hand and say, “Just kidding, dear, you are all done. It’s over.” She would cry with happiness and thank him again and again.   

Dad was so passionate about his work that our home life was often intertwined with his work life. He loved to entertain his staff and colleagues away from the office. At a pool party one summer, a small refrigerator was out in our yard to keep drinks cool. I noticed several little white plastic containers about the size of a film canister.  Ever the curious one, I unscrewed one of the lids and peered in only to find an eyeball staring back at me. Later, while still in his bathing suit, Dad would use those pig eyeballs to demonstrate and teach his latest surgical techniques. That was the last time I dove into the mysteries of our refrigerator.

Even when Dad became the patient, he kept his good spirits and humor. At one point near the end of his life, he had to have brain surgery. After endless hours of waiting, I tiptoed into the recovery room, terrified of what I might discover. From across the room, I saw that he looked like a q-tip with his head all wrapped in white, the same white color of my nervous face. But he stunned me as his cheerful voice rang out, “Hey, Look, who’s here!” as if I had stopped by a party. The nurses were performing an ultrasound on another patient in the room, and in the process the machine was making a loud flatulent sound. Dad said, “don’t give me what that guy had for lunch.” Even brain surgery couldn’t stifle his punch lines. 

Flying helicopters was another of my father’s many passions, and so much of our time together was spent in the sky, dreaming of new and exciting ways to spend our days. On one such afternoon, when I was ten years old, my dad spotted a sand bar as we flew over Long Island. It couldn’t be reached by swimmers and was too shallow for boaters to pull up. We swooped down and claimed it as our own, christening it “Kelman’s Island.” After carefully landing the helicopter, we picnicked on deli sandwiches and engaged in philosophical discussions until the tide started to come in. We began to notice how many seagulls used our little island as refuge. Perhaps it should have been called “Bird Crap Island,” but we didn’t care. When my dad and I were out flying at low tide (the sand bar disappeared at high tide), we often stopped at Kelman’s Island and relaxed in peaceful seclusion. The ideas we shared on those long-ago afternoons remain with me to this day.

Our weekend flying trips continued as I got older, and Dad would encourage me to take the helicopter’s controls. He’d take us up high enough, so that if I made a mistake he would have time to correct it and bring us in safely. I was drawn to flying because it was a place where I felt connected to Dad, yet I was afraid I could never master it. Hovering is one of the most complicated maneuvers because so many different axes are involved, forward/backward, up/down, left/right, side-to-side. There are four different main controls and just a bit too much movement with any one of them, while trying to hover, can throw off the balance and put you into a dangerous “pendulum” motion. Whenever my frustration mounted, I said, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” My dad, always positive and encouraging, began to get angry upon hearing my oft-repeated lament. He couldn’t hear those words. That is not how he lived his life. He could not accept defeat for his daughter either. One day, he finally lost patience and through pursed lips said, “If you don’t want to, that’s one thing, but you can do anything you want to do. So cut it out. Stop saying ‘can’t.’ I’ll pay for lessons. Just shut up already.” Then he giggled because he couldn’t tolerate being angry with me for long. 

He never would have invented his ingenious surgical technique if he listened to all the naysayers he encountered along the way. He would often say to me “life is full of obstacles and challenges. Those are really opportunities beckoning to do something special, not road blocks to stop or hinder you.” 

I accepted his challenge to learn how to fly, as I am sure he knew I would, and began taking helicopter lessons. My weekdays were spent studying for my Master’s Degree in Social Work and counseling leukemia patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. My weekends were filled with studying aviation and flying over Long Island. I couldn’t do one without the other. The flying was so freeing, yet controlled, and life affirming, while the work with cancer patients sobered me to the harsh realities of life’s fragility. My ability to take on different challenges and succeed is a tribute to the unconventional life-lessons my father imparted through the years.

I received my Master’s Degree and my helicopter license at about the same time. My father’s love and support gave me the confidence to achieve those goals and many more in life. I will always have my father with me because I will always have the gifts he gave me – faith in myself, concern for others, and a desire to explore life to the fullest. And I will always have his song for me, the song that plays in my heart, “Lesley Ann can do anything she wants to.”

Dr. Charles Kelman is best known as the “father of Phacoemulsification,” modern cataract surgery. He has helped millions around the world regain their sight with his innovative surgery. Neurosurgeons have adopted the Kelman Phacoemulsification machine to dissect tumors from delicate brain and spinal cord tissue in children. He held more than 100 patents and received numerous awards including the National Medal of Technology from President George H. Bush in 1992 and the Lasker Award in 2004.

In addition to being voted by colleagues as one of the most influential ophthalmologists of the 20th century, he was an accomplished performer, appearing on “The Johnny Carson Show,” “David Letterman,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and in Carnegie Hall. He was also a Broadway producer, composer, jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, and pilot.

Lesley Kelman Koeppel graduated from the University of Michigan in 1987 and NYU School of Social Work in 1990 (LCSW). For years she was an oncology social worker at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She continues to run support groups for patients and families dealing with leukemia and lymphoma and has a private psychotherapy practice in Manhattan where she lives with her husband David. Lesley and David are the proud parents of three adult children, Noah, Adam, and Claire.