Until April of this year, Stephanie Handler, a 42-year-old California resident, had no reason to believe that she would ever be fighting to save her vision.
Although she was in good health (she says having a cold was the sickest she had ever been) she had not been to an eye specialist in almost 15 years. But in April, she saw one soon after noticing blurring in her left eye. The diagnosis was immediate and unequivocal: she had glaucoma.
Her reaction? “Shock. Tears. Waves of nausea.”
I’m sharing Stephanie’s story with you now because January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month—a great opportunity for us to focus our attention on what truly can be a devastating disease.
According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, the disease is the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world. The foundation estimates that more than four million Americans and nearly 70 million people worldwide have glaucoma—and almost half of them have no idea their vision is under attack.
Stephanie was one of those people. At the time of her diagnosis she learned she had been living with glaucoma for at least ten years. She had noticed no changes in her vision over the course of that decade. That’s not unusual: Because we unconsciously accommodate for slowly failing vision, as much as 40 percent of it can be destroyed before we notice it.
Glaucoma is caused by a buildup of intraocular pressure (IOP) that affects the optic nerve, which transmits visual information to the brain. Although Stephanie thought wearing non-prescription eyeglasses as a fashion accessory or getting too much sun might have caused her condition, her doctors told her nothing she had done was at its root: the cause is most likely hereditary.
IOP is measured using millimeters of mercury (mm HG). A healthy eye has an IOP of 10-21 mmHg. Because the IOP is Stephanie’s left eye at her time of diagnosis was a very unhealthy and dangerous 56 mm Hg, medical intervention was immediate. Stephanie’s ophthalmologist is treating her condition with eye drops and has told her that if it worsens, surgery may be necessary to help stem further vision loss.
I’m sure Stephanie regrets not having regular comprehensive eye exams over the ten years that preceded her diagnosis. Those exams most likely would have picked up her disease and resulted in earlier, potentially vision-saving, intervention.
“I will never neglect my eyes ever again,” says Stephanie, who now works with the Glaucoma Research Foundation to raise awareness of the disease and funding for research that hopefully will someday find a cure for the disease.
As Stephanie’s story makes clear, glaucoma can happen to anyone, at any time. And once it takes your vision, it is gone forever. You can see how profoundly it can affect vision by using this glaucoma simulator developed by Eye Care America, the foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Please make comprehensive eye exams a routine part of your preventive health regimen. Don’t allow the “silent thief of sight” to sneak up on you!
Stephanie tells her story in this video.