Plane crash claims accomplished corneal surgeon Dr. Robert Arffa, ‘loved by everybody’

Plane crash claims accomplished corneal surgeon Dr. Robert Arffa, ‘loved by everybody’

Dr. Robert Arffa
Photo courtesy of Sharon Arffa
Dr. Robert Arffa Photo courtesy of Sharon Arffa

Dr. Robert Arffa, a corneal surgeon specializing in laser vision correction and a longtime Jewish resident of Mt. Lebanon, died in a plane crash on Thursday, June 16.

Arffa, 62, was flying from Pittsburgh to State College to perform laser surgeries when the aircraft crashed during landing at University Park Airport. The pilot of the plane, Gary Orner, 60, of White Oak, also died. Arffa and Orner were the only people on board the flight.

Arffa, whose primary office was in Bridgeville, had traveled to State College once each month for the last 15 years to provide Lasik and YAG laser procedures on patients of Nittany Eye Associates, according to his wife, Sharon Arffa.

The plane, a small Piper owned and operated by Aero National, Inc., departed the Washington County Airport at 7:30 on the morning of the crash on its regularly scheduled chartered flight. The plane crashed at 8:20 a.m. while approaching the University Park Airport.

The accident is under investigation by the National Traffic Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, and Aero is cooperating with the investigation, according to a prepared statement released by Aero.

Arffa was born in Woodbridge, Conn. He graduated from Cornell University in 1975 and received his doctorate of medicine in 1979 from the University of Connecticut. He completed his residency in ophthalmology at Indiana University in 1984 and his fellowship in cornea and external disease at Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans in 1986. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1986.

Arffa and his wife celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary just nine days before the crash. The couple has three children: Rachel (Matthew Yang); Lauren; and Matthew (Valdone).

Arffa was an accomplished corneal surgeon who had performed more than 30,000 procedures, but he was also known for the personal attention he gave to his patients, according to longtime employee Cindy Fenton.

“He would not only take the time to explain the procedure to the patient, but he would also explain it to family members,” Fenton said. “He would call his patients directly to see how they were doing after the surgery. And he was an awesome boss. He was always patient and willing to teach. His patients are literally walking into the office and hugging us.”

Susan Finder of Upper St. Clair, a patient on whom Arffa performed corneal surgery, remembered Arffa as being a “warm and compassionate” physician.

“I’m so saddened by this, and I am so deeply touched because he made such a huge difference in my life,” Finder said. “He gave me my sight back. He was my doctor for 15 years, and he guided me all the way.”

Dr. Michael Talone, clinical director of the Laser Center of Central Pennsylvania in State College, said he had not encountered another ophthalmic surgeon as skilled as Arffa.

“He’s an amazing surgeon,” said Talone. “His accomplishments are too numerous to name. And he brought a level of competence and consistency to the practice that I had not seen.”

Talone described Arffa as “gentle and calm” and noted that he treated janitors and surgeons with the same level of respect.

“He didn’t care what you did; he cared who you were,” said Talone.

Arffa’s achievements extended beyond surgery. He was the author of four books, including a textbook on ophthalmology and a guide to financial planning for professionals, and he was the co-author of “Microkeratome-assisted lamellar keratoplasty” with Dr. Massimo Busin of Italy, which describes an advanced surgical procedure the two physicians developed.

He was also known for his varied hobbies and interests, including cycling, skiing and wine. He was the author of a wine blog followed by more than 300 people, according to his wife, Sharon Arffa.

But his greatest strength, she maintained, was his devotion to his family.

“Bob was an incredibly smart man and an incredibly kind man, but he wasn’t a sap or a pushover,” said Sharon Arffa. “He was a strong man, but he never raised his voice with the children as he put down the law. He was loved by everybody.”

“He always wanted to be with the kids,” added his daughter, Lauren. “He always wanted to come out with me and my friends, and he was always a lot of fun when he did come. He always knew the new cocktails and wine and showed us a good time.”

Arffa’s son, Matthew, worked for him in his office one summer during his college years and was struck by how much his father cared for his patients.

“It was moving to see how thankful they were to him for giving them eyesight and comfort,” said Matthew Arffa, who is a third-year medical student with an interest in ophthalmology. “And that inspired me to do my best.”

Funeral services were held Sunday, June 19 at the William Slater II Funeral Home and were officiated by Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai assisted by Rabbi Mark Mahler of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.

Arffa is also survived by his mother, Shirley (Levinson) Arffa, his brother Allan (Kay) Arffa and his sister Bonnie (Tim) Perman.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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