Glaucoma: The Silent Thief of Sight

Former boxer and craft enthusiast defeat vision-robbing disease.

For former boxer Michael Harris, the fight to preserve his eyesight has become one of the biggest, most important challenges of his life.
Michael boxed as a light heavyweight while in the Army before turning pro as a heavyweight. While training for a bout in Germany in 2004, his sparring partner, a former champion, hit him in his right eye with a jarring uppercut.

Photo by Jordan Pysz.

Even glaucoma couldn’t knock Michael out.

“It was a different kind of pain,” Michael recalls. “I heard a click. My vision wasn’t messed up, but I can still remember it.”
Michael went on to compile an undefeated professional record, 11-0, fighting most of his matches in the Tampa area. After spending years in the ring, and at the urging of his wife and his church family, Michael retired from boxing and pursued a more long-term career in law enforcement.
“I’ve met a lot of fighters, some of them have even won championship belts, but they have no retirement, no nothing,” he notes. “So, I got a good job as a deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. It’s a great organization, a great department to work for.”
Although Michael’s professional boxing career was behind him, the near-knockout punch he’d endured introduced complications he never saw coming. He began experiencing difficulty seeing out of his right eye during a strenuous exercise session at his gym last summer.
He assumed the combination of the sweat from the workout dripping into his eyes and the steam from his post-workout shower caused the sudden visual impairment. However, when he arrived at work the distortion remained. When his vision cleared after a bit, Michael dismissed the problem as a minor irritant in his eye.
“The vision problem in my right eye started in August, but it didn’t get bad until December,” he remembers. “I was working and suddenly lost vision in my right eye. I could not see the person in front of me talking. I couldn’t see their mouth moving, and their face was really blurry. I thought, Man, I’m through.”

Dodging a Knockout Blow

Michael immediately scheduled an appointment with his eye doctor, who referred him to Sandra M. Johnson, MD, a board-certified ophthalmologist who is fellowship trained as a glaucoma specialist at The Eye Institute of West Florida.
Dr. Johnson soon discovered that Michael was suffering from glaucoma, a disease that threatened to rob him of his eyesight and put his career in law enforcement at risk.
Often referred to as the silent thief of sight, glaucoma can cause irreparable damage before a patient even notices any vision loss or experiences any sort of symptoms. Glaucoma is caused by increased pressure inside the eye due to improper drainage of the aqueous humor, a clear fluid that flows in and out of the eye through a mesh-like channel to nourish nearby tissues.
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve, a bundle of more than a million nerve fibers carrying information from the retina to the brain. The retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of each eye, is vital to good vision.

It was the hardest punch I ever got hit with, in boxing and anything else in life. -Michael

The two main types of glaucoma are open-angle and angle-closure, which refers to the drainage angle where the iris (the colored part of the eye) meets the cornea (the outer covering). Open-angle is the most common type of glaucoma, accounting for at least 90 percent of the cases in the United States.
Because glaucoma is a chronic disease, patients require “continuity of care” that may extend over years and even over multiple generations, Dr. Johnson explains.
“Glaucoma is often hereditary,” she says. “But somebody without a family history can be the first one to get the gene defect. I treated a father who had it, and it was diagnosed in the daughter and grandson. The father went completely blind, and then the daughter became blind in one eye. I operated on the grandson while he was in high school. Each generation did better because they were aware of the disease and began treatment earlier and earlier. This is a typical example of hereditary glaucoma.
As we get older, normal aging with glaucoma will cause these channels to get clogged. When that happens, fluid can build up and the pressure rises. Michael’s glaucoma was worse in his right eye because of the blow he received in training. However, he had glaucoma in both eyes. The trauma he received in his right eye made it most susceptible to damage, but if he hadn’t come in he would have become blind in both eyes from glaucoma.
Michael’s glaucoma was worse in his right eye, the eye that received the blow during training so many years before. Normal eye pressure ranges from 12 to 22. Michael’s readings were dangerously high – 53 in his right eye and 51 in his left – which came as a surprise to him.

“Almost Blinded in One Eye”

“I was shocked because I have six brothers and one sister, and none of them have glaucoma,” Michael says. “It was the hardest punch I ever experienced – in boxing or anything else in life. I thought, Wow. I’d worked out all my life, eating healthy, organic food and something like that just comes along.”
Michael was treated as an emergency patient during his initial visit to The Eye Institute of West Florida. The severity of his high eye pressure required immediate care. He underwent numerous tests and received prescription eye drops to clear his vision and lower his pressures.
Dr. Johnson stresses that Michael had been seeing an optometrist who “fortunately referred him to a glaucoma expert to take care of his problem.
“I took care of the episode of high eye pressure and educated him on his disease and how it could affect his work and life,” she adds. “He was almost blinded in one eye, so I placed him on a regimen he could live with. Now, he’ll see me on a regular basis moving forward to ensure his vision remains stable. He’ll need his eyes for decades longer.”
At his last check-up, Michael’s pressure readings were 12 in his right eye and eight in his left. Thanks to Dr. Johnson’s emergency intervention and skilled follow-up care, he’s able to see well and has returned to his normal daily activities without worrying about sudden loss in vision.
“I go to the gun range – I shoot expert – and I’ve been working out, taking hot showers and nothing bad has been happening,” Michael marvels. “So, it’s been awesome.”

Specialized Care Helps

Gloria Duck enjoys getting crafty, whether she’s sewing clothing, coloring pictures, making greeting cards, working with plastic canvas or creating fabric yo-yos.
“I do it three mornings out of the week,” she shares. “I’m not afraid to be challenged. If somebody else is teaching something new, I’ll learn it.”

Photo by Jordan Pysz.

Gloria sees well enough now to thread a needle.

Good vision is vital to Gloria’s ability to do such detailed work, such as making bunnies and chicks from yo-yos, which are gathered circles of cloth secured with a simple running stitch.
“It’s important to see well,” she says. “Otherwise you start rubbing your eyes and saying to yourself, why can’t I see that? I would be very frustrated if I couldn’t see, and I would probably give up my hobby and not do anything.”
Gloria wears glasses while crafting and reading and is especially vigilant about her eyesight because she has glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness in the United States. She’s a winter visitor to Florida from the Albany/Schenectady, New York area. An ophthalmologist in upstate New York has been monitoring her disease.
That physician decided Gloria needed cataract surgery and a procedure called a trabeculectomy to create an alternate drain for the fluid in her left eye. However, the pressure in her eye was still higher than it should have been. Since she was heading south to Zephyrhills, her doctor referred her to the nationally recognized The Eye Institute of West Florida.
After seeing a comprehensive ophthalmologist, Gloria was referred to glaucoma expert Dr. Sandra Johnson. After a thorough examination, Dr. Johnson determined that the trabeculectomy had failed due to scar tissue which had occluded drainage of fluid out of the eye. Although her New York ophthalmologist had prescribed a number of medications, the pressure in Gloria’s eye was still not low enough. Her pressure was 20 but it needed to be half that much.
Though Gloria couldn’t feel the dangerously high pressure, she was at risk of losing even more vision in her left eye.
Dr. Johnson adjusted Gloria’s medications and performed a procedure known as needling. After numbing her left eye, Dr. Johnson was able to carefully dissect the scar tissue that was occluding the drainage and which restored the flow of fluid out of the eye to reduce the pressure.
“She had really good results,” reports Dr. Johnson, who continues to monitor Gloria’s eye pressure.

Why a Glaucoma Specialist?

Many ophthalmologists have been doing glaucoma procedures for a long time. If and when those procedures fail, they refer patients to a glaucoma specialist for either a second procedure or to free the scar tissue that was formed from the first procedure. Having an expert improves outcomes.
Dr. Johnson is the first glaucoma specialist Gloria has seen, and she’s been thrilled to have such expert care during the months she spends in Zephyrhills. She’s been impressed with Dr. Johnson since that first appointment.

I found the staff there very helpful and concerned. I can’t say enough about the practice. I’m very, very glad that I found them. -Gloria

“She’s great, very sociable,” Gloria raves. “She makes me feel relaxed. Dr. Johnson explains everything. She listens. No question is a silly question.”
Dr. Johnson has specialized in glaucoma cases for 20 years and performs between 200 and 300 surgeries on such patients each year.
Dr. Johnson emphasizes that glaucoma specialists have more tools when it comes to taking care of glaucoma patients. “Many of these advanced cases may require surgery at some point in the future. With a specialist, you are getting the best possible care available and have an opportunity for a broader approach to taking care of your eyes.”
Dr. Johnson offers advanced testing and monitoring services that non-specialists do not necessarily have. This includes measuring and photographing degrees of vision loss and the density of the nerve fibers that are still viable in the back of the eye. Depending upon the viability of those nerves, specialists can determine how low the pressure needs to be so that a glaucoma patient does not lose any more vision.
“You have to make sure the pressure is low enough for that particular set of nerves,” Dr. Johnson educates. “We do this to establish a baseline, so I don’t just follow the patient’s intraocular pressure. That doesn’t show us the whole picture of what’s going on.

“Continuity of Care”

Gloria’s condition has stabilized. She’ll continue on her current medications and have her eye doctor in New York monitor her glaucoma until she returns to Zephyrhills and to Dr. Johnson’s care next winter.
“I couldn’t be more enthused about Dr. Johnson and the staff at The Eye Institute of West Florida,” Gloria declares. “I found the staff there very helpful and concerned. I can’t say enough about the practice. I’m very, very glad that I found them.”

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