Reflux Expert Discovers the World of Bird Watching

A New York City clinician admits she's not the type of person who can sit still. But it's a different story when she's around birds.

More than 46 million Americans, or about 20% of the population, described themselves as bird watchers in 2012, according to the National Audubon Society.

Jamie Koufman, MD, FACS, is one of them.

Koufman is the founder and director of The Voice Institute of New York, a treatment center for people with voice disorders and diseases of the larynx and throat; and The Koufman Reflux Center of New York, a subdivision of the Voice Institute. She is also a novice at birding, having taken up the hobby a year ago. But she has quickly immersed herself fully.

“I adore birds,” Koufman explains. “I’ve never sat still for very long, but I can sit in my backyard in North Carolina and watch birds for two hours with my camera.”

Evolving Career Path

Long before birding, or even medicine, for that matter, was on her radar screen, Koufman had entertained a career in law. Her father was a very successful lawyer in Massachusetts, and she intended to follow in his footsteps. But that changed when he died while Koufman was a sophomore in high school.

“I had some very unpleasant dealings with his firm about money,” she recalls. “That left a sour taste in my mouth at a young age.”

Koufman abandoned law as a potential career and eyed medicine. Two of her uncles were surgeons; one of them was a general surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital.

“I like fixing things,” she says. “I felt I would be a really good general surgeon.”

And the rest is history? Not so fast. In 1972 Koufman was exposed to a new technology: laser surgery. Surgeons could remove nodules and such through a patient’s mouth that would otherwise have required incisions. Koufman was hooked. By 1981 she had 31 employees and a national practice, and by 1995 had a basic science lab researching reflux disease.

“I take care of a lot of patients who have manifestations of reflux that are often overlooked,” she says. “In some ways I’m like the Galapagos turtle,” a reference to the species of giant tortoise whose neck grew in order to reach plants for food. “I’ve evolved differently than my colleagues.”

Becoming a Birder

It was about a year ago when Koufman discovered the world of bird watching. She lives and works in New York City, but also owns a home near Winston-Salem, NC, that sits just off the 18th fairway of a beautiful golf course. She was sitting outside one day and realized the only sounds she heard were those of birds.

“I drove up to the local hardware store and got some bird feeders,” she recalls.

Koufman became enamored as she watched two Cardinals take to the feeders. The adult birds had babies, and Koufman watched them grow. She began reading everything she could about birds.

“I think what happens to people who become birders is there’s an epiphany,” Koufman says. “There’s a moment, which is very much like a religious conversion, when they sort of see the light.”

What they discover, Koufman explains, is that birds are everywhere; that they’re a link to the natural world; and that their flight patterns are simply spectacular. But Koufman also discovered that learning about birds wasn’t easy.

“There aren’t many websites that are very good,” she says.

Koufman, an amateur photographer with her own bird website, began taking photographs of birds and sending them to friends and colleagues who were more advanced birders for assistance in identifying them.

“I did that for a while I said to myself, you know, there are 70 to 90 million types of birds, probably closer to 100 million different birds,” Koufman explains. “Last year we sold $20 million worth of bird seed. That’s $67 for every man, woman and child in the United States.”

A Network for the Birds

Koufman reasoned that if a golf television network could spring to life, and there are only 25 million golfers in the world, then there was an opportunity to start a bird network. She took action.

“I live in New York and I have access to people in media,” she says. “I made some phone calls and I put together a network of people. It’s an interesting cross-section of people. We’re beginning to think about everything from bird cams to programming to how to build a network … and it’s my hobby. It’s exciting and it’s fun.”

Perhaps more than just a hobby. Sitting in her New York home, Koufman keeps a watchful eye on bird comings and goings down in North Carolina. A camera mounted on the birdbath in the yard of her Winston-Salem home transmits the pictures to her TV screen in New York. She even keeps binoculars and cameras handy when on the golf course.

“One of the things that is very cool about birding is there are no Republican or Democrat birds,” Koufman says. “People love birds and that transcends class and culture and politics. I think people who become birders become sort of natural conservationists. And I think that’s a healthy thing to think about our planet, and promote conversation about how we can take care of our world.”

Rewarding Yet Frustrating

Koufman, who has been listed as one of America’s Top Doctors every year since 1994, acknowledges that the work she does is very exciting, but also very frustrating.

“I used to do about 70,000 miles a year lecturing, which is a lot of traveling,” she explains. “I’d give the keynote speech, and they listen, they clap, they’re very interested, but it doesn’t alter how people practice. It’s too much of a paradigm shift. People aren’t going to be doing reflux testing.”

But Koufman says that’s what makes the work she does rewarding, the fact that she has been successful as a catalyst and a disruptor.

“I’ve had a lot of influence on how people think about respiratory reflux, and the work I do may or may not be appreciated in my lifetime, but I am one of the pioneers,” she says. “There’s a little needlepoint a woman did for me that’s framed and on the front door here. It says: This is the last stop. And so what gets me up in the morning and going is we take care of patients that really are sort of pinning their hopes on us. And in many cases, we get them fixed. And that’s the most rewarding.”