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How Glaucoma Expanded One Young Playwright’s Vision

With the help of her eyecare team and theater professor, her eye trauma became her new lease on life.

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How Glaucoma Expanded One Young Playwright’s Vision
Bianca Beach, 23, has battled eye trauma her entire life. Most recently she was diagnosed with glaucoma at age 20. She wrote a play about her experiences entitled Tunnel Vision. Here she is after graduating in 2022 from Chapman University. (Courtesy photo | Bianca Beach)

Bianca Beach knows all about eye trauma.

She’s dealt with it on some level her entire life. She was just a baby when she was fitted for her first pair of eyeglasses. She experienced a complete retinal tear when she was 11. And now, as a young adult, she needs eyedrop medication to keep from going blind.

Bianca has glaucoma. She is only 23 years old.

She’s met with numerous eyecare professionals over the years. She’s endured numerous surgeries and grueling recoveries. She knows the odds are not in her favor.

And yet, her eyes are wide open. She sees her situation for what it is. And in some ways, her story is just getting started.

All it took was one conversation. That conversation led to her writing a play about her experiences. That process led to a new lease on life.

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Prologue: Life With Glaucoma

Bianca starts her day like many of us. She wakes up and reaches for her eyedrops.

However, Bianca isn’t like most of us. She needs daily doses of five different eyedrops to keep her glaucoma in check. She applies three drops in the morning, one midday, and five at night.

Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness in the world and the most common cause of irreversible blindness. The risk of glaucoma increases exponentially with age. The vast majority of sufferers in the U.S. – around 2.7 million out of an estimated 3 million – are 40 and older.

RELATED: Increases in Glaucoma Cases Projected for Years to Come

“Because it affects peripheral vision first, many patients remain asymptomatic, not realizing their peripheral visual fields are closing in,” explains Dr. Judd Cahoon, PhD, of Astorino & Associates Eye Center in Newport Beach, CA.

But, of course, Dr. Cahoon and the rest of the staff at Astorino Eye Center know Bianca is not like most glaucoma patients. Dr. Arthur Astorino, MD, performed Bianca’s third cataract surgery when she was 12. Bianca has been under their care ever since. So they know full well she never had the “luxury” of being asymptomatic for years.

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“Bianca has a combination of bad luck from genetics, bad luck from the natural shape of her eye (leading to retinal detachments and further diminishing her peripheral vision), and bad luck from the progression of the disease,” says Dr. Cahoon. “She’s done remarkably well for how heavy the odds are stacked against her.”

Act I: An Early Education

Bianca doesn’t have much memory of her first invasive eye surgery. She was six when she underwent strabismus surgery to correct a misaligned eye.

She does, however, remember what happened when she was 11. She was at a pool party with her family. She was playing ping pong with her younger sister, Tallia, when suddenly she started missing the ball.

And kept missing the ball.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” recalls Beach. “I learned to cover my eye and I could see fine. But when I covered my other eye, a giant chunk was missing from my vision.”

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That week, her parents took her to a retina specialist who determined everything was fine.

Everything was decidedly not fine.

A few days later, she saw a rainbow. Her retina had completely detached. Her life forever changed.

Bianca remembers the shocked look on her dad’s face when she reported seeing that rainbow. She remembers not really knowing much about her family’s history with eye-related issues.

How Glaucoma Expanded One Young Playwright’s Vision

Bianca Beach was a baby when she was fitted for her first pair of eyeglasses. (Courtesy photo | Bianca Beach)

She got a swift education.

“I knew I had relatives that couldn’t see,” says Beach. “But nobody had sat me down and explained. I found out real quick.”

Turns out, her gene pool is practically brimming with eye trauma.

Her father was young, too, when he experienced his first detached retina. He had his second in his mid-40s. Her grandfather experienced two detached retinas. Her uncle back in Arkansas was blind by age 13 and has never seen his wife or his children.

Bianca passed 50% nerve loss when she was 16 years old. She’s required seven invasive eye surgeries – six since the rainbow incident.

“If we hadn’t moved out [to California] when I was a baby, I have no doubt that I’d be blind today,” says Beach, noting the extreme level of eye care she’s needed and that’s been available to her on the West Coast.

Act II: It Takes a Village

Life after the rainbow hasn’t been easy.

Right away, normal childhood activities were replaced by trips up and down the California coast in search of effective treatments, skilled doctors, and quality care. Playing sports or engaging in any physical activities that could damage Bianca’s eyes went out the window.

In the game of life, she was relegated to the bench, forced to watch the world go by with deteriorating vision.

Thankfully, she had a strong support system to help see her through.

“I’ve just had the most wonderful people around me the whole time,” Bianca gushes, noting, in particular, the support of her family; her retina specialist, Dr. Leonid Lerner; and Dr. Arthur Astorino and his staff. “I’ve had so much support from everyone. [Astorino & Associates] is like a second family to me. I know everyone that has been in there the past 10 years!”

RELATED: ‘Finding Glaucoma in a 12-Year-Old.’ — ECPs Recall Memorable Moments

With her support system by her side, Bianca has been able to endure a litany of surgeries, procedures, and treatments over the years. The most recent were a series of four Selective Laser Trabeculoplasties (SLTs) to reduce the pressure that’s constantly building up in her eyes. However, the effectiveness of an SLT is reduced over time.

There is a surgical option on the table. But it is a risky one. The benefit would be increased vision quality. The risk is possibly losing the use of her eye altogether.

“Given Bianca’s previous surgical history, her delicate eye anatomy, and the risks of additional surgery, we are holding off on that option for the time being,” says Dr. Cahoon. “Bianca’s team includes glaucoma specialists from multiple universities in Southern California. We all work together to make sure she is receiving the most up-to-date treatments.”

So, in the meantime, Bianca diligently sticks to her daily eye-drop regimen. The medicine regulates the flow of fluid in her eyes and ensures pressure doesn’t build. She knows the drops aren’t a cure-all, though. Glaucoma has no cure.

“If we hadn’t moved out [to California] when I was a baby, I have no doubt that I’d be blind today.”

Act III: Seeing is Believing

For most of her life, Bianca regarded her situation as debilitating. She saw her eye issues as obstacles she had to overcome, her glaucoma diagnosis an unrelenting adversary.

It is easy to understand that outlook.

She’d been robbed of so many formative years. So much had been taken away. It was the cause of such pain and trauma, of moments of fear and depression.

But there are some things that can’t be diminished. There are some special spaces that stand tall in the face of difficulty. For Bianca, it is the stage.

“I’ve been doing theater since I was six years old. I’d always wanted to do it,” explains Beach, a spark entering her voice. “I was terrified I’d lose it.”

How Glaucoma Expanded One Young Playwright’s Vision

Bianca Beach and her younger sister, Talia, when they were children. Bianca has been wearing glasses since she was a baby. (Courtesy photo | Bianca Beach)

She didn’t lose it. In fact, she excelled. Comedy is her self-proclaimed strength. She professes to have a good cockney accent in her repertoire. She loves playing spunky grandmother characters. Her dream role, however, is to play Hellen Keller’s teacher and friend Anne Sullivan in a production of The Miracle Worker.

Bianca felt her constant need to wear glasses was an obstacle. But it wasn’t enough to keep her off the stage. She eventually enrolled at Chapman University to study theater. She graduated earlier this year and has her eyes on a theatrical career.

How Glaucoma Expanded One Young Playwright’s Vision

Bianca Beach wrote and starred in a one-woman play about her lifetime dealing with eye trauma. (Courtesy photo | Bianca Beach)

But a funny thing happened on the way to her diploma. Her glaucoma script got a rewrite. It happened over the course of a single conversation.

“Going into my senior year at Chapman, we got a new professor,” says Beach. “I went in to meet with her because I figured that’s what you should do with a new professor.”

At some point, the conversation turned to Bianca’s ongoing struggles with her eyes and her glaucoma diagnosis. The new professor, Wendy Kurtzman, stopped her right there.

“She asked me if I was a writer,” says Beach. “She said, ‘You need to write this!’”

Kurtzman is an Emmy-nominated Hollywood casting director with more than three decades in the business. Needless to say, she knows what she’s talking about.

“Bianca was a student in my Business of Acting class,” explains Kurtzman, who is Head of Casting for PhilmCo Media. “We talk a lot about the ‘whole artist.’ Part of that is developing other facets of a creative career.

“Bianca talked about a project she wanted to work on ‘once she got out of school.’ I told her there was no reason to wait.”

So Bianca got to work. She spent the next five months writing a play about her experience with eye trauma and glaucoma. She was empowered to tell her story.

“I cried a lot when I wrote,” says Beach. “It was very draining throughout the process. It was so personal, and I knew the impact it would have on the people around me.”

Kurtzman mentored Bianca throughout the process. She also encouraged her to apply for a grant. It came through, along with the funding to produce her one-act play, entitled Tunnel Vision, at Chapman. Bianca got a fellow student to direct, another to stage-manage, and another to fill an ensemble role.

In short order, she was alone on the stage, bearing her soul to the audience as the lights shone down.

How Glaucoma Expanded One Young Playwright’s Vision

Bianca Beach, 23, performs a scene from her play Tunnel Vision in 2022. She wrote and starred in the one-woman play about her lifetime dealing with eye trauma. (Courtesy photo | Bianca Beach)

Bianca laughed when recalling the difficulty she had getting the lines of her 25-page script down. “I vastly underestimated how long it would take me to memorize,” she admits with a chuckle.

But, really, her one-woman play wasn’t about acting or remembering lines so much as it was about letting go.

All the surgeries. All the agonizing recoveries. All the conversations about the degenerative effects of glaucoma. Writing the play forced her to embrace it all. Performing the play released the pressure that’d been building inside her since she was 11.

It was cathartic. It was healing. It was glorious.

“I went into this conversation with my professor thinking my eyes were a negative something that could hinder me,” says Beach. “To have that turned around in one conversation… “

She pauses as she thinks for a moment.

“Something I thought was a weakness is actually my strength. It has made me stronger.”

Epilogue: What Comes Next

The Astorino eyecare team attended a showing of Tunnel Vision. They were blown away. Not only by watching one of their patients – one of their second family members – displaying her talent so well, but by how true to life her depiction of glaucoma was.

“The play was great,” says David Greening, an optician at Astorino since 2014. “There was almost like a Ted Talk part. There was like a stand-up comedy part. [If someone] didn’t know about glaucoma going into the play, [they would have] learned a lot coming out of it.”

Greening was so impressed by the show, he penned a blog post about it and detailed the evening’s performance with loving care.

“I found it really important,” says Greening, of Bianca’s play. “It is really educational and very heartwarming: Just how she tackled glaucoma and found herself along the way and grew into the strong person that she is today.”

How Glaucoma Expanded One Young Playwright’s Vision

Bianca Beach, 23, poses with members of the Astorino Eye Care team after a performance of her play Tunnel Vision in 2022. Beach has battled eye trauma her entire life. Most recently she was diagnosed with glaucoma at age 20. The Astorino team includes, from left, optometrist David Greening, Dr. Judd Cahoon, PhD, and Dr. Arthur Astorino, MD. (Courtesy photo | Bianca Beach)

Kurtzman, for her part, is looking forward to seeing what Bianca does next with her play.

“This journey of disability through sight was inspiring and emotionally compelling,” says Kurtzman. “I am hoping that Bianca can develop this further. I would love it to be a short doc or a one-woman staged show.”

Bianca says the thought of sharing her play with others dealing with glaucoma is appealing. She wants to be a source of support.

“It is such an invisible disease,” says Beach, without a hint of irony. “I want to find a cure. That is my ultimate goal.”

“I want to find a cure. That is my ultimate goal.”

Bianca says a doctor with the Glaucoma Research Foundation told her that he thinks a cure for glaucoma is within reach.

“He thinks that clinical trials will be ready to start in 10 years,” says Beach. “I’m pretty sure I cried that day.”

Until then, Bianca has a burgeoning theatrical career to attend to. She’s got her eyedrops. She’s got her life ahead of her.

“This has made me the person I am,” says Beach. “I have so much drive and love for the people around me. If so much hadn’t been taken away from me…”

She trails off one last time. But there is peace in her voice. A pressure relieved.

PHOTO GALLERY (13 IMAGES)

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