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John-Ross Rizzo, M.D. ’08

John-Ross RizzoDemonstrating the Vision to Help Others

John-Ross Rizzo, M.D. ’08 (SOM)
School of Medicine

Progressive vision loss didn’t deter John-Ross Rizzo in medical school. It’s not stopping him either in his role as clinical instructor at the New York University School of Medicine, director of the Visumotor Laboratory at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine and founder and chief medical officer of Tactile Navigation Tools.

Some might consider it a cruel twist of fate that John-Ross Rizzo, M.D. ’08, a once-aspiring ophthalmologist, is gradually losing his vision to an incurable eye disease. Dr. Rizzo considers it a blessing in disguise.

Indeed, most people would have shelved the dream of becoming a physician after receiving a prognosis of total vision loss, but Rizzo grew tenacious. He pushed himself through medical school and an internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital. When his dimming eyesight ruled out a career in ophthalmology, he launched his new aspirations as a physiatrist and vision researcher, looking for ways to rehabilitate people who have lost their sight through brain injury, aging, or illness. The research inspired Tactile Navigation Tools, the company Rizzo founded to develop technology for the visually impaired and earned him a spot on Crain’s New York Business “40 under Forty” list.

“I’ve been given a unique set of lemons,” says the 32–year-old clinical instructor at the New York University School of Medicine and director of the Visuomotor Laboratory at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. “I’m just making lemonade.”

Since childhood, Rizzo—J.R., as he likes to be called—wanted to be a doctor. Like his grandfather, an anesthesiologist and his role model, he wanted to help people. But at age 15, Rizzo learned he had choroideremia, a rare, genetic condition that degenerates the choroid and retina, causing progressive vision loss.

Undaunted, Rizzo pursued his medical education. He labored through histology classes. He devised a system of multidirectional lighting so he could read late into the evening. When he could no longer see the screen, he read printouts. “Doctors said that I was going to accelerate the degeneration of my retinas,” he says, “but what else was I going to do?”

As the disease progressed, Dr. Rizzo developed the severe tunnel vision that characterizes choroideremia. His doctors advised him against a career in ophthalmology. “It was a difficult pill to swallow,” he says. But it was not the end of his medical career. “I had to make a pivot,” he explains. “I couldn’t become an ophthalmologist, so I figured I’d be a vision researcher.” He already had an interest in research. When he was a student at NYMC, he was a member of the Medical Student Research Committee and in 2006 he won the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research as a second-year medical student.

He chose a new specialty, physical and rehabilitative medicine. As a fourth-year chief resident in NYU’s department of rehabilitative medicine, he won a year-long clinical research fellowship that supported his study of eye-hand coordination and acquired brain injury. Currently, with funding from the National Institute on Aging, he is studying eye-hand coordination and brain injury in conjunction with aging, particularly among young and older stroke patients.

Having lost 90 percent of his vision, Rizzo no longer treats patients. Instead, as founder and chief medical officer of Tactile Navigation Tools he concentrates on researching and developing products like the Cumba Cane and the Eyeronman. Cumba Cane has a wide, two-wheeled base that pushes small obstacles out of the way as a person walks (it also collapses into a conventional cane.) The Eyeronman, a sensor-equipped vest vibrates in response to nearby obstacles, to alert wearers— including first-responders—of tripping hazards. He hopes to have the Cumba Cane on the market by the end of this year and the Eyeronman by 2015.

He won the Rising Star Entrepreneur Award at the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs 2014 Get Real Conference.

Losing his eyesight has made life difficult. Yet, it has given Rizzo an invaluable opportunity: to put himself in patients’ shoes. And that, he says, is a blessing.