29 Dec Glaucoma: One Woman's Story

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Stephanie Handler on glaucoma

Four years ago, I was diagnosed with glaucoma, a serious eye disease, if left untreated, can lead to blindness. I made an appointment with San Francisco General Hospital’s ophthalmology clinic immediately when I had noticed a few days prior that the vision in my left eye had begun to blur.

“Are you sure I have glaucoma?” I said to the optometrist who first diagnosed me, having only been vaguely familiar with the disease. She examined my eyes via a slit lamp before passing it to her University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) colleague, an ophthalmologist. “Yes, Stephanie, you have glaucoma. It appears advanced in your left eye. I am very concerned about that eye. We are going to administer a few eye drops and ask that you take this Diamox pill. We want to make sure your intraocular pressure lowers before you leave today.”

Shock. Tears. Waves of nausea. The most I had ever been diagnosed with was a cold.

Questions began spewing from my mouth…When, where, how…what is it? “It’s because I sit in front of the computer too much, isn’t it? It’s all the Visine I used habitually when my eyes were bloodshot? Oh…I know, it’s the eye glasses I was wearing late last year as a fashion statement? Or perhaps all the carelessness in the sun in my younger years?” I gasped, trying to catch my breath as tears streamed down my cheeks.

Both doctors repeatedly shook their heads. “No Stephanie, it isn’t any of the above. You just have glaucoma. It may be hereditary. After examining your left eye it appears as if you have had this disease a very long time.”

Glaucoma is caused by a buildup of intraocular pressure inside the eye which affects the optic nerve. The optic nerve transmits visual information to the brain. Glaucoma is commonly called “the silent vision thief” because there are no symptoms. It turns out I was walking around for at least 10 years without having a clue that I had this disease. And as far as I know, there is no history of glaucoma affecting any family members.

Truthfully, I had always relied on an internist when it came to my health. Yearly visits to my primary doctor after checking my pupils with that little light seemed enough for me. I had no need for eye glasses. I had perfect vision. Boy, was I wrong. It turns out that my intraocular pressure (IOP) was initially measured at 56 mmHg in my left eye. A normal IOP reading is along the lines of 10 - 21 mmHg. Thankfully, the IOP in both eyes had decreased at the end of my initial appointment and I went home with a few Diamox pills and a smorgasbord of eye drops. I came back the following morning to visit A. Sydney Williams, MD, a highly respected glaucoma specialist located in San Francisco.

Dr. Williams and I hit it off right away, but, aside from my IOP reading declining miraculously to an 8 mmHg in my left eye and a 7 mmHg in my right eye (originally 24 mmHg) overnight, I didn’t appreciate the news he had for me after examining my eyes. However, he was optimistic about the future for glaucoma, stating, “In your lifetime it is hopeful there will be treatment to cure this disease. In the meantime the pressure in your eye can be controlled with eye drops and there are options for surgical procedures as well.” We both agreed that the goal right now is to sustain the vision that I have, which I would be perfectly happy with as it stands. Although my vision has been affected in my left eye, it is only slightly blurred if I close my right eye, otherwise things look pretty good as I look through both eyes.

I will never neglect my eye health again, and take proactive measures like wearing polarized sunglasses and setting the brightness levels low on both my cell phone and computer – preventative efforts that everyone can utilize. I have also been active in online support groups and discussions, communicating with and learning from patients across the globe.

I have learned an immense amount about vision care and eye disease in the past four years and have had the opportunity to work with some highly regarded ophthalmic organizations. In 2012, I was invited to Prevent Blindness America’s Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. by the Northern California chapter CEO to share my story with California members of Congress in an effort to increase funding related to ocular health legislation. I am also an active volunteer with San Francisco-based Glaucoma Research Foundation - a preeminent nonprofit organization focused on finding a cure — and I participate as a volunteer in their annual 3-Day event, Glaucoma 360, a unique series of events uniting research, industry, and philanthropy.

Thomas M. Brunner, Glaucoma Research Foundation’s President and CEO, is optimistic about finding a cure. “Thanks to our generous donors, we have funded pioneering and transformational studies to advance the field of glaucoma. We now know more about the disease and are closer than ever to a future without glaucoma,” says Brunner. “Our collaborative research model, Catalyst for a Cure, is focused on finding new ways to manage glaucoma so patients like Stephanie can preserve their vision over their entire lifetime. This investigation will transform how glaucoma is detected and managed in the future.” Glaucoma Research Foundation encourages regular and complete eye exams, as early detection is the key to protecting your vision from damage caused by glaucoma.

I am currently under the care of Yvonne Ou, an MD who practices at UCSF’s Glaucoma Clinic. Dr. Ou’s research includes applying neural stem cell biology to the characterization and therapy of glaucoma. She also studies the relationship between glaucoma and other neurodegenerative diseases, something I am particularly fascinated by. “What impresses me most about Stephanie is the effort she has put into learning about glaucoma, volunteering with advocacy and research foundations, and updating herself on the latest treatments and research findings. While not all patients will be able to do the same, everyone should be aware of the recommendations for a dilated eye exam in persons who may be high-risk for glaucoma: African-Americans over age 40; everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans, and people with a family history of glaucoma,” says Ou.

Glaucoma is not just a disease your grandmother has. It can happen to anyone. And most types of glaucoma have no symptoms at all. Approximately 1.5 million Americans go undiagnosed. I was one of them four years ago.

Learn more about Stephanie’s story: click here. Remember, January is Glaucoma Awareness month and an important opportunity for you to educate your clients about the importance of regular check-ups for this insidious thief of vision which affects 60 million people worldwide and for which approximately half of glaucoma sufferers in the United States remain undiagnosed.

Last modified on Tuesday, 29 December 2015 06:21