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Legendary Jackson ophthalmologist Connie McCaa, M.D., Ph.D., died of complications from heart surgery Wednesday, April 19, 2016 at age 79. She had a large, devoted following among patients and was an iconic professor and eye surgeon.
Dr. McCaa passed while surrounded by her family at the renowned Cleveland (Ohio) Clinic, where she received heart surgery March 1. Up to the time of her surgery, the professor of ophthalmology continued to see patients at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s (UMMC) Grant’s Ferry clinic, not far from her Flowood home.
She also had returned to work in 2014 after receiving a kidney transplant. She vowed never to retire.
Dr. McCaa received numerous local, state and national honors.
She will be inducted into the UMMC Hall of Fame on Aug. 10. McCaa was named by her peers as one of the Best Doctors in America for 12 consecutive years, a national rarity. Her honors from the national American Academy of Ophthalmology (AA0) included being the first woman and first Mississippi doctor named to its Hall of Fame.
She leaves behind literally thousands of eye patients who followed her throughout her career, a large family and many friends.
But she often said her four children were her greatest accomplishment in life.
Visitation was held Sunday (April 23) and Monday (April 24) at Broadmoor Baptist Chur-ch chapel in Madison. Funeral services were held at 11 a.m. Monday in the church’s worship center, with burial at Parkway Memorial Cemetery in Ridgeland.
A native of West, Miss., Connie Eleanor Smith was born Dec. 6, 1937, and grew up in the adjacent Emory community “which was basically her house and a store, west of West” recalled her best friend of 67 years – since seventh grade, Gayle Smith of Jackson (no relation).
Dr. McCaa’s parents were the late Hattie “Hab” Coleman Cade Smith and Andrew Paul Smith of Emory, each who served as Holmes County Sheriff and Tax Collector. After her parents died, McCaa and her large family continued to have frequent family events at her parents’ farmhouse. When McCaa and her two brothers grew up there, the 1,600-acre farm produced cotton, corn, soybeans, cattle, hay and timber.
A born bookworm, Dr. McCaa excelled academically since early childhood and her teachers had her skip the sixth grade. She graduated as valedictorian from West High School in 1954 and won the Balfour award for scholarship and achievement.
Chemistry was her first intellectual pursuit in a lifetime of mastering the sciences. She graduated with Special Distinction from Mississippi College in Clinton in 1958 with a degree in chemistry and a minor in math. There, she met and married her (late) husband Robert E. McCaa in 1957. She also was a teaching assistant in the Department of Chemistry. (She was named Mississippi College Alumnus of the Year in 1998.)
Dr. McCaa went on to earn her doctorate degree in biochemistry from the University of Mississippi in 1963, where she also was a Student Assistant in that department all four years.
In 1964, Dr. McCaa was appointed to the UMMC graduate faculty.
She continued with postgraduate training in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at UMMC from 1968 to 1970. She earned a Special Research Fellowship from the National Heart Institute from 1967 to 1970.
She continued to be promoted on the UMMC faculty, becoming a Professor of Biochemistry in 1973, a position she later held simultaneously with her medical tenure at UMMC. She also was an Associate Professor of Physiology and Biophysics there from 1970.
She became a highly respected researcher and had numerous accomplishments and honors. She was a researcher for many landmark studies led by the late Dr. Arthur C. Guyton, a national figure.
The benchmark of becoming a full professor of biochemistry just made Dr. McCaa want to learn more. She decided to become a physician as well and graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine, receiving her M.D. in 1977. Her medical graduation honors included Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society, the Dr. Elise Rutledge Prize for highest scholastic average in Surgery, and the 1977 Louisiana-Mississippi Ophthalmological-Otolaryngological Society Award for scholastic achievement.
She took her internship in the Department of Internal Medicine at UMMC in 1977 and 1978. She achieved her dream of becoming an eye doctor by completing her residency in UMMC’s Department of Ophthalmology from 1978 to 1981.
But, of course, Dr. McCaa didn’t stop there. She became a Fellow at the prestigious L.S.U. Eye Center in New Orleans, earning her fellowship in Cornea-External Disease and Refractive Surgery, under notables Dr. Herbert Kaufman and Dr. Marguerite McDonald in 1984 and 1985.
She was one of the first LASIK surgeons in the United States and performed the procedure on thousands of patients in her career to correct their vision.
Also a leading corneal transplant surgeon, Dr. McCaa historically performed the most such surgeries annually in Mississippi. She was known for performing emergency corneal transplant surgeries to save patients’ sight at all hours of the day and night, when other doctors refused because they had other plans.
She was board certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology in 1983. She later had the distinction of receiving its specialty certification of Diplomat.
She was by elected by the UMMC medical staff to become the Chief of Medical Staff in the 1995-1996 term.
In 2003, she was nationally honored with the Secretariat Award from the AAO, which is the top national professional organization for ophthalmologists. She has served on the Nominating Committee and the Credentials Committee of the AAO Council. She also was a Councilor of the AAO.
Dr. McCaa was active in the Mississippi Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Association (the state ophthalmology society) and has served as its president. She periodically spoke to the Mississippi Legislature on issues and laws pertaining to eye care and ophthalmology.
Dr. McCaa often worked 12-hour days between surgery and seeing patients, which was her delight.
“All these years, I have witnessed how Connie devoted so much of herself into providing really excellent care for her patients,” said her UMMC colleague, noted ophthalmologist C.J. Chen, M.D. “She always went one step further to help them.”
That work included venturing out into private practice from 2007 to 2013. Dr. McCaa established a very successful private practice, including an eye clinic at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson and the then-new LASIK Laser Eye Center in Flowood. She remained in private practice until her kidney transplant surgery, then after taking time off to recover, returned to work at the UMMC faculty and clinics in 2014.
She was preceded in death by her husband of 48 years, Robert Edward McCaa, Ph.D., in 2006.
Dr. McCaa is survived by: her daughters Melanie McCaa Stewart of Memphis, Tenn., Lois McCaa Bradford of Birmingham, Ala., and Dr. Gayle McCaa Watters of Madison; son Robert Andrew McCaa of Brandon; and brothers Holt Smith of Lexington and Paul Smith of Grenada.
Dr. McCaa also is survived by 14 grandchildren: Connie Nicole McCaa, Kellie Coleman McCaa, Andrew Hudson McCaa and Andrea Marie McCaa of Brandon; Grace Cade Stewart and Ellen Coleman Stewart of Memphis; John Morgan Bradford, Mary Johnson Bradford, Anne Coleman Bradford, Melanie McCaa Bradford and Katherine Wade Bradford of Birmingham; and Walker Ledyard Watters II, Braedan Robert Watters and Olivia McCaa Watters of Madison.
She also is survived by sisters-in-law Jane Smith of Lexington and Pattie Smith of Grenada; daughter-in-law Deborah McCaa of Brandon; and sons-in-law, Sam Stewart of Memphis, George Bradford of Birmingham, and Clay Watters of Madison.
Pallbearers were Russ Smith, Jason Smith, Dr. Cade Smith, Andrew Smith, Marshall Smith and Stephen Smith.
Honorary pallbearers were Dr. Chen, Dr. James Phillips, Dr. Douglas Johnston, Dr. Ralph Sulser and Dr. Christopher Anderson.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that financial donations be made to the Mississippi Lions Eye Bank or the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency (MORA).
Dr. McCaa also would have encouraged friends to tell their families if they want to be organ donors. It is not enough to note it on your driver’s license; your family must give permission as well.

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