What I thought I knew about glaucoma could be boiled down to two things — that only old people got this eye disease, and, that left untreated, it could lead to blindness.
When I was diagnosed with glaucoma at age 39, that took care of one of the things I “knew.” I thought surely I must be one of the younger people to have glaucoma. Absolutely wrong. Even young children can have the eye disease.
Shortly after my diagnosis, the TV show “MacGyver” began incorporating a storyline on glaucoma, based on the real-life experience of Dana Elcar, who plays MacGyver’s boss, Pete. I have heard criticism that some bits of information on the show were misleading about the facts of glaucoma. But I still think the show’s producers and the network deserve a great deal of credit for publicizing this disease which 2 million Americans have — but only half of them know it.
At the end of the first show highlighting Pete’s problem, the program offered a toll-free number for the National Center for Sight, 1-800-221-3004. Calling the number brought me free information on glaucoma from the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness.
The reason that glaucoma can cause blindness is that increased pressure of fluid within the eye causes damage to the optic nerve. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no symptoms in the early stages of glaucoma. By the time a person has noticed a problem with his eyes, it is probable that irreversible damage has already been done.
With medication or surgery, it is often possible to prevent loss of vision from glaucoma — but there is no way to get back any vision that has been lost. Dana Elcar has painfully proved that fact.
Diagnosed more than 20 years ago, Elcar did not heed his doctor’s advice to use glaucoma drops every day. He did not notice any problem with his vision, and so did not think it necessary to use the medication.
Elcar is paying the price for making that decision. He is now close to blind. He cannot drive a car or read or do many other things he used to do. One “MacGyver” program showed his TV character using a computer monitor with print perhaps 10 or more times larger than usual.
Dana Elcar’s situation breaks my heart.
And he’s not alone.
Any ophthalmologist can tell you how hard it is to get glaucoma patients to take eye drops two to four times a day. And because their vision deteriorates slowly, they think they are getting away with not using their medicine.
Until they can’t see well enough to work or read or drive.
I’m fortunate in that my eyedrops must be taken only twice a day, and they do not blur my vision. If the day comes that I need to use drops that do cause a problem — or that I need laser surgery — I will face that.
How my glaucoma is treated may be negotiable, but the fact that it must be treated is not negotiable. Unless there is a cure someday, it never will be negotiable.
But treatment is only one aspect of living with glaucoma — the other is diagnosing it.
People are more likely to have glaucoma if they are over 40, or have a relative with glaucoma, or have diabetes, or take steroid medication regularly, or are very nearsighted, or have had an eye injury or eye surgery. Black people also are more likely to have glaucoma.
But because the disease has no symptoms until vision has been lost, the only way to find out if you have glaucoma is to see an ophthalmologist or optometrist regularly. He or she can check the pressure within the eye with a simple test, and can also examine the optic nerve. If either of these tests is not normal, visual field tests can determine whether vision has been lost.
The 1 million people who don’t know they have glaucoma could be diagnosed — and begin treatment to preserve their eyesight — if everyone would have eye examinations regularly.
But people whose eyesight is fine often think they do not need regular eyecare. And people whose sight deteriorates often attribute it to aging and do not seek treatment.
My recommendation for National Glaucoma Awareness Week is: Have your eyes examined. Because I do so, and because I follow my doctor’s recommendations, I can still read and write and drive and do all the other things I hope to do for many more years to come.
Dana Elcar can no longer hold those same hopes.
Roxanne Moore Saucier is the NEWS health writer.