It was just past 7 a.m. a couple of days ago and downtown Dayton was just waking up.
At the corner of East Fifth Street and Patterson, a pair of construction workers walked past carrying their scuffed, white hardhats under their arms. Soon after, a couple of street people, one carrying a bedroll, the other a tattered shopping bag crammed with his possessions, shuffled by after a night in the city’s shadows.
An old man walked his rust-colored cocker spaniel in front of the Neon Movies and a delivery truck rumbled beneath the train trestle and onto the Fifth Street bricks, bringing produce to one of the restaurants in the Oregon District.
At Drake’s Downtown Gym — with its vibrant Apollo Creed/ Rocky Balboa mural covering the entire front wall — a one-woman beehive of activity already was in progress.
Luxme Hariharan — her hands and wrists bound in black boxing wraps, her fushia shirt darkened in spots from sweat — was the lone person in the gym, except for trainer and owner John Drake, who was running her through her fistic paces:
She worked her shoulders, lifting a tire up and down over her head. She hit the heavy bag, went outside and jogged along the block, did push-ups, flops and lunging exercises, and then she and Drake set up under the mural, where she spent three rounds firing punches into the padded catch mitts he held at various angles in front of him.
In the two months she has been working out at the gym — two and sometimes three times a week — Drake has had one concern. It’s the same one her parents — Hari and Nithya — have voiced over the years.
“Early on, especially, I’d ask her, ‘Lux, you sure it’s OK to use your hands like this?’” Drake said. “I’d tell her,’ Be careful. Don’t overdo it … You don’t have to hit the mitts.’”
While that may seem like a strange concern for a fight man, Hariharan isn’t your typical boxer.
When she leaves the gym and goes to work — at Dayton Children’s Hospital — Lux becomes Dr. Lux, as she’s known there.
She’s the hospital’s new Chief of Ophthalmology and the Chief Population Health Officer.
When she was brought in from Miami, Florida — where she was Chief of Pediatric Ophthalmology of the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital — she was tasked with building Dayton’s Children’s ophthalmology division, which at the time had two accomplished people, but hopes to expand significantly in the future.
The day after her vigorous, early morning workout, she conducted three medical procedures at Children’s. She lanced and drained an infected bump — a chalazion or blockage of an oil gland at the base of an eyelash — on a 3-year-old boy’s eyelid.
She did a surgery on the eye muscle of a 2-year-old girl to straighten a crossed eye. And finally, there was an exam under anesthesia.
Her boxing sessions — which she first began when she did a fellowship at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and stepped into the famed Hollywood gym, Wild Card, run by Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, who’s tutored dozens of world champions — help her, she said, be a better doctor and a better person.
“Boxing helps me so much,” the 41-year-old doctor said. “I can tell the weeks where I boxed and when I did not.
“I’m way more focused. It helps me get rid of … frustration’s not quite the right word … more like the built-up anxiety we all have, even when we don’t know it.
“Exercise in general helps get rid of that, but boxing is like nothing else I’ve ever done. It’s the only workout that really gets me excited and it’s different each time.
“I’ve danced all my life and it’s about dancing with the rhythm of the trainer. It’s all about the mind. It’s strategy — when to throw a punch, when not to in order to set up the right punch. It’s keeping your eyes open. It’s avoiding being hit.
“It’s kind of a metaphor for life
“For me, boxing always has been my soul food.”
‘My family’s Ellis Island’
Her academic resume is impressive.
She initially got a degree in Spanish and Caribbean Studies at the University of Wisconsin and her senior year she studied childhood malnutrition issues in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
She got a pediatric ophthalmology fellowship at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami and another in Los Angeles. She did a residency at the University of Pennsylvania’s Scheie Eye Institute in Philadelphia and had a prelim year in pediatrics at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn. She got a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
For three years she doctored around the world and spent a year in Geneva, Switzerland, working for the United Nations. She speaks six languages and is in the process of learning Arabic, her seventh.
“I like to speak to the people I’m working with in their native language,” she said.
She’s worked to implement childhood blindness prevention programs in over a dozen countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Mexico, Niger, South Africa, Philippines and India.
With a reputation as a global researcher and a compassionate child health advocate, she’s developed an expertise in eye muscle misalignment (strabismus), lazy eye (amblyopia) and other pediatric visual disorders.
That she’s now in Dayton is a serendipitous, full-circle story in itself.
She lived in Kettering as a kid, arriving here from Hyderabad, India — by way of Nairobi, Kenya — in 1984 when she was just 2 years old,
Her family came here through the sponsorship of her great aunt, Dr. Lalitha Swamy, who’d come to the Dayton area in the 1970s and lived in Kettering. She was a medical professor at Wright State University and started the school’s Geriatrics Program, Lux said.
Dr. Swamy, who the family calls Chithi, a Tamil nickname of endearment, obviously practices what she peached. She just turned 92 and still lives with a sharp mind and independent spirit at her home in Kettering.
Over the years she sponsored several family members and though they eventually would move to all parts of the nation, her house has remained their central gathering place for generations. In fact, just last weekend she hosted a gathering of family from New York and Columbus and Lux said they watched old family films and looked at photos.
“Dayton was my family’s Ellis Island,” she said.
As a little girl, Lux went to Montessori school here. And while she and her parents soon moved on to Iowa City — where her dad went to grad school at the University of Iowa — and then to Madison, Wisconsin, where her dad taught at the University of Wisconsin and her mom was a pediatrician, she often returned to see Chithi.
While she calls her parents “my best friends, my heroes,” she said her great aunt has a special place in her heart:
“She walked me across at my medical school to get my certificate. … She’s my inspiration.”
‘They need people to step up for them’
When she started college, Lux had no plans of practicing medicine:
“I was more interested in children’s rights and I got involved in activism and was part of a group that went to Texas to help the United Farm Workers. And that made me think of going to law school to really help.”
But she said everything changed at a family reunion:
“My grandmother collapsed and everyone freaked out. But my great aunt — she’s my grandmother’s sister — was a doctor and my uncle was there, too, and they knew exactly what to do.
“They said, ‘Get her some orange juice! She’s diabetic and hypoglycemic.’
“That’s when I realized ‘Wow! Medicine! You can help people you love and know exactly what to do in a crisis. That changed everything and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to med school.’”
Although she planned to be a pediatrician, the focus on ophthalmology came by chance, she said:
“During my rotation I had a week of electives and the only thing available was ophthalmology, So I said, ‘If I have to do that, at least put me with a pediatrics person.’
“They partnered me with Burt Kushner (a well-respected pediatric ophthalmologist at UW) and he became my hero. I saw the way he impacted kids from kindergarten through high school. They would invite him to birthday parties and bar mitzvahs because he was such a part of their lives for helping them see.”
She became determined to advocate for children:
“They need people to step up for them and that’s become my passion — advocating for those who can’t do it for themselves.
“A lot of people don’t realize a child’s eye is a lot different than an adult’s.
“Children’s vision is continually forming until they’re 8 or 9 because of the neuroplasticity of the brain. You can intervene early by getting glasses for kids, patching or surgery. You can change their vision completely by catching the problems early.
“That’s why things like vision screening in school and getting kids glasses are so important. Once they hit 9, 10 or 11, the vision they have becomes much harder to correct.
“From 60 to 80 percent of blindness is preventable with the right screening and care. A lot of people have vision disorders that could have been prevented.
“Stevie Wonder, for example, is blind because of retinopathy of prematurity (an eye disease in premature babies) and it could have been prevented if caught early.”
After working around the globe, she’d settled into her position at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami until a headhunter sought her out for the Dayton position.
Even though she’d often returned here over the years, she said she didn’t know the city had a stellar children’s hospital and at first wasn’t interested.
“I said, ‘No way I’m going to Dayton,’” she admitted with a laugh. “But then I thought, ‘Well, at least it will be a trip where I can visit my Chithi.’”
When she got to Dayton Children’s, she said she was “blown away” by the facilities, the people already working there — especially ophthalmologist Brenda Young and optometrist Amber Dawson — the hospital’s future plans and the major commitment to childhood eyecare by the state of Ohio.
She called the hospital “a hidden gem” and then — sounding like the poster child of the chamber of commerce — she started rattling off all the other hidden gems she’s discovered since moving into a place in downtown Dayton across from RiverScape.
“I woke up the other day and they were doing yoga over there,” she smiled.
She talked about the 2nd Street Market, the bike paths, live music, comedy clubs and salsa dancing the night before she came to the gym.
She’s long been a dancer — especially salsa and merengue — and even taught a salsa boxing class via Zoom from Miami. She was surprised last week to find Genuine Work on McDonough Street in downtown Dayton where they have Salsa and Bachata Mondays.
“I ended up just dancing and sweating and having a good time with random people until 10 p.m.,” she said. “People here are so welcoming. That’s the true hidden gem of Dayton.”
And that’s what she discovered when she came into Drake’s gym, which is just a six-block walk from where she lives:
“I introduced myself and said I was interested, and John said, ‘Great, we can start tomorrow.’”
‘I just fell in love with it’
Dr. Lux said her cousin introduced her to boxing when she lived in Los Angeles:
“She’s super into fitness, a model, and she said the best way to lose weight and get in shape is boxing. She suggested Wild Card, so I just walked in one day in my scrubs. It’s an old school gym, but everybody was so friendly, I just fell in love with it.”
The legendary fight club, located at Santa Monica Blvd and Vine Street has been home to over three dozen world champions, including Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, Amir Khan and James Toney.
Freddie Roach put her under the tutelage of veteran trainer Pepe Reilly, a welterweight for the U.S. Olympic team at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
“I learned whatever (crap) went wrong in your day, you left it at the door there and got into the flow,” she said. “Boxing was just what I needed.”
Although she drifted away from the sport when she worked overseas — returning to it at a gym in Madison during her brief stops home — she got back into training when she took her job in Miami four years ago. She worked out briefly and the newly-minted Fifth Street Gym and then at a club run by Matt Baiamonte, who had some ties to the late Angelo Dundee, who trained Muhammad Ali and many other champs and ran the original Fifth Street Gym with his brother Chris.
Now she’s found a boxing home at Drake’s, so much so that she said her whole department at Children’s intends to take a Friday afternoon boxing class together.
Because of her surgical career she said she doesn’t plan on fighting in the ring — though trainers have told her she’s shown promise — but she does channel a little of that “Eye of the Tiger” beat that fueled Rocky Balboa.
“Boxing gives me a sense of empowerment,” she said. “As a woman, it makes me feel strong, in control. It’s a great feeling.
“When I walk out of the gym here with my wraps on, I’m like ‘No one’s messin’ with Lux today!’”