As an optometrist there are very few things more defeating than having to tell a patient they are losing their vision and there is nothing I can do about it. Unfortunately this happens more than one might think. Conditions that can blind a patient have a large range. In the young it’s typically congenital conditions for example Stargardts disease, these are rare but I think most of us have had the unfortunate experience of telling a child and their concerned parent to prepare for the worst. In the elderly we see a greatly more prevalent condition called Macular Degeneration taking peoples vision at an alarming rate. Each patient will handle the situation and news differently, some I cry with, some hold their heads high and start problem solving their future and others just want a hug as they sit in dismay not quite knowing what to do next.
We as doctors sometimes have to give the worst news possible. It is also our job to give hope and direct our patients to the appropriate help when we can no longer treat the condition at hand. Many aren’t aware of the Association for the Blind and other local support that can teach them how to live independently without their vision. News of these organizations, although somewhat comforting to have a “next step”, usually don’t inspire hope for patients after receiving their diagnosis.
This brings me to something that is very exciting to our profession, hope for a cure. Stem cell research is something that has been in the news many times over the years. I am glad to say that they have found a safe way of obtaining the stem cells and are utilizing them in human trials. Currently progress is being made in a very small amount of chosen patients to regrow macular tissue. This is the area of the eye that many blinding conditions effect. Stem cells have been injected into the back of the eye in an attempt to try to regrow this tissue. Results thus far have been promising, although not perfect. The hope is to bring vision back to the blind and cure many types of macular conditions. The trial patients have gotten some tissue back and halted their various conditions from worsening. This is enough to have researchers saying that this will save the vision of those in early stages of their conditions. Thus far full vision in the blind has yet to be restored, even though motion and colors are being detected again. Much more research is needed before this will become available as many side effects and possible unforeseen complications need to be studied. Large population studies are expected to be underway.
I am so excited to tell my patients now that even though they are losing sight now and currently no treatment is available, soon there will be a treatment if not cure. There is hope, this won’t be permanent and if they can hang in there it won’t be long.
Written By: Dr. Angela Jammer, OD