Questionnaire: Carol Lally Shields ’79

A women’s basketball trailblazer has set her sights high as a doctor.

Author: Allie Griffith ’17, ’19M.Ed.

Carol Lally Shields ’79 is a world-renowned ocular oncologist at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. She is the author or co-author of multiple textbooks and over 2,000 peer-reviewed medical articles, as well as the first woman to receive the Donders Medal, given every five years by the Netherlands Ophthalmological Society. A member of Notre Dame’s first varsity women’s basketball team, Lally Shields received the 2023 Theodore Roosevelt Award — the highest honor the NCAA confers on individuals.


What made you want to attend Notre Dame?

I went to the biggest Catholic high school in western Pennsylvania, Kennedy Christian (now Kennedy Catholic), and we had a very good basketball team. I had this desire to go to the best school possible — and that would be Notre Dame. In my hometown, we didn’t look east. No one looked at Princeton and Harvard. If you were a good student, your dream was to go to Notre Dame. So, I applied there with zero intention to play sports. I wanted to become a doctor and I wanted to study.


At what point did you decide to play basketball?

I was living in Farley, and ripped out of a notebook, taped to the wall, was a little announcement: “Women’s basketball tryouts. Come if you’re interested.” That was it. We had no basketball team. And it was taped in the stairwell.

I had played basketball with guys my whole life, so I knew street basketball — I was really good at throwing fouls and no one ever saw it. I had a great jump shot and I could drive through anybody. But I said, “No, that would be too much time.” But it bothered me, seeing that sheet of paper. So I said, “You know, I’m going to try out. I probably won’t make the team because they’re probably really good.” I tried out and made the team.


What was it like before it became an official varsity sport?

We traveled in a van that Notre Dame loaned to us, and we would eat at the cheapest McDonald’s we could find. We were the construction company that they hired to build a foundation and make it stay and make it strong. But I loved the dance, the fluidity of playing and really making the game look fun.


How did the program transition?

My sophomore year, some of the seniors said, “We gotta make ourselves varsity.” We wrote a document asking to become a varsity sport, and because of Title IX, my junior and senior year, we became varsity. And things changed. We had nice uniforms, nice warmups, we all had the same shoes — I still have my shoes, they painted the Nike stripe green — we stayed in hotel rooms,
we ate out at restaurants, not McDonald’s.


What was it like playing with your sister [Maggie Lally ’81]?

She was a lightning bolt, so fast. She won the mile race in Pennsylvania when she was in high school. She just could go and go and go. She was our point guard and she knew when we were on defense, at any moment, she was to spit out and go for a fast break if I could get the ball. We were a duo! We never had to talk, we just had ESP.


What made you want to pursue ophthalmology and your subspecialty, ocular oncology?

When I went to medical school, I didn’t know what field I was going to go into. So, in a big family, you call your closest sibling and you bounce ideas off them. So I called my brother [Pat Lally ’75], who had gone to Notre Dame and went to med school and became an ophthalmologist. He said, there’s no question, you have to go into ophthalmology. It’s a very technically advanced field where you have lots of cool instruments, and you can bring sight to a patient in one surgery. Just that one, little, five-minute phone call was enough to convince me.

I applied around and got into Wills Eye Hospital. I did my three years, and I realized I liked cataract surgery, but I was pulled more towards cancer surgery, ocular oncology. Because not only does it make a difference in sight, but I’m doing real medicine here. I’m saving lives.

We have made real headway in cancers in babies. We have taken retinoblastoma, where a baby gets cancer before age 1 and goes blind in one or both eyes. The parents notice that something is wrong, they take them to the eye doctor, who quickly sends them to us, sometimes in the same day, because this is life-threatening. We confirm the diagnosis, take them to the operating room and start the treatment right away. We get everything done in one week. This was a cancer that in the 1950s killed maybe 50 to 60 percent of patients. It was deadly. Now, only 1 or 2 percent of patients die from this cancer.

I had a circle-of-life moment. When I was an RA in Farley, there was a girl in my section who had no vision. I didn’t even think to ask why. She was a really nice kid. She graduated and she went on to law school at Notre Dame. She got married and brought her children from the central part of the United States to see me. She said, “Dr. Shields, I know you because you were my RA.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, I remember you. I never thought to ask why you were blind.” She said, “I had retinoblastoma, and here you are, the national expert at it, and I would like you to check my baby.” Can you believe that?

Interview by Allie Griffith ’17, ’19M.Ed., the alumni editor of this magazine.