Jan. 8, 1999 LOS ANGELES (January 6, 1999) -- Flight attendant Vesta McDermott credits a chance encounter with a passenger in the darkened cabin of a DC-10 with saving her sight. That passenger was Michael S. Berlin, M.D., an ophthalmologist on the medical staff of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who recognized the signs of advanced glaucoma in Vesta's left eye. Dr. Berlin's expertise so impressed Vesta, who had undergone treatment for the condition for many years, that she vowed to make an appointment with him after she completed an impending move to Los Angeles from New York. Today, Vesta's glaucoma is under control -- a heartening circumstance she attributes to impressive advancements in medical care and treatment.
Vesta is one of 10 million Americans with glaucoma, though only an estimated two to four million have been diagnosed with the often symptom-less disease. During National Glaucoma Awareness Month in January, medical professionals and glaucoma sufferers alike urge people to have their eyes examined for the disease, which can result in blindness when left untreated. In the U.S., as many as 116,000 people are legally blind due to glaucoma, and an estimated 5,500 new cases of disease-related blindness are reported each year.
"It's so important for people to seek examinations for glaucoma, especially if it runs in your family," stressed Vesta, whose family has a history of the disease. "When you're in your twenties and thirties, you don't think anything of it. If I'd known then what wonderful treatments were available, I would have had a glaucoma examination much sooner."
Described as "the sneak thief of sight," glaucoma results from elevated eye pressure that damages the optic nerve, resulting in loss of side vision that can progress without treatment. Dr. Berlin, who is also Director of the Glaucoma Institute/Beverly Hills, recommends that those with a family history of the disease or are in a high risk group, particularly African-Americans, should have a comprehensive eye examination annually from the age of 35. For others, a complete exam is suggested every two years to monitor for signs of open-angle glaucoma, which tends to develop after age 40.
"Evaluating patients for signs of glaucoma can be compared to checking for high blood pressure, which also has few symptoms but can result in serious problems if not controlled," Dr. Berlin stated. "If glaucoma is detected early, treatment can prevent the terrible consequences of eventual blindness."
While there are several forms of the disease, typically only acute angle-closure glaucoma produces symptoms, including blurred vision, brow-aches, severe eye pain, haloes around lights, and nausea and vomiting. Though rare, this serious form of glaucoma demands immediate evaluation and treatment to avoid vision loss.
Vesta's glaucoma, which produced sudden, rapid vision loss, had been diagnosed when she was just 32, and she had experienced years of "many, many eye drops and many, many lasers" before coming under Dr. Berlin's care. She credits his progressive, cutting-edge approach to stabilizing her condition and dramatically improving her vision, now better than 20/20. Eight years ago, Vesta underwent a triple procedure in her left eye: a trabeculectomy, a surgical procedure that increases drainage to reduce intraocular pressure, plus the removal of a cataract and the implant of an intraocular lens. The procedures were performed at Cedars-Sinai, where Vesta recuperated for several days.
"When Dr. Berlin took off the bandages, tears poured down my face -- I could see clearly for the first time in my life," remembered Vesta, who had previously worn a very thick lens in her eyeglasses to improve the vision in her highly near-sighted, "industrially blind" left eye. "I gave him a really big hug. It was like a miracle."
While Vesta's case may be more severe and complex than many glaucoma sufferers, it illustrates the treatment options now available as a result of medical advancement, said Dr. Berlin. Glaucoma patients have access to a wide range of topical medications, including eye drops, contact-lens-like inserts and gel-forming solutions, as well as various laser and conventional surgical procedures.
For Vesta, the prognosis is optimistic. "I feel blessed to live in an era where these types of treatments are available -- it's truly phenomenal what medical science can achieve."
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