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Seeing the World through New Eyes

by Wendy R. Levin Gross

Thanks to Selective Laser Trabeculoplasty (SLT), the world became clearer for 58 year-old Frank Williams of St. Petersburg, who has suffered with glaucoma since age 16.

Glaucoma, an eye disease caused by build-up of fluid within the eye, causes damage to the optic nerve, gradually decreasing sight without warning. More than five million people in the United States suffer from glaucoma. According to the World Health Organization, it is the second leading cause of blindness around the globe.

Everyone from babies to senior citizens is at risk for developing glaucoma. However, the disease is more prevalent in people over age 40, diabetics, Hispanics, African-Americans and those with a family history of brown eyes. In a healthy eye, the fluid brings in oxygen and nourishment, keeping the eye inflated by continually filling and draining internally. In individuals with glaucoma, the internal fluid does not drain properly, causing elevated pressure that will blind the eye unless identified and controlled in time.

Until recently, glaucoma patients wishing to control their intraocular pressure to avoid going blind, relied on liquid eye drops and other medications that had to be taken daily. With side effects and a stringent dosing schedule, many patients found the treatment “hard to swallow.”

Even though Argon Laser Trabeculoplasty (ALT) therapy was approved for use in the treatment of glaucoma in the 1980s, its success was dependent upon a “one shot” deal. Because the laser was a hot laser that potentially damaged delicate tissue, if unsuccessful, it could not be repeated and patients were destined to live their lives on drugs.

In March 2001, the Food and Drug Administration approved SLT. Utilizing a combination of frequencies allowing the laser to work at very low levels, SLT treats specific cells in the blocked drains, leaving untreated portions of the mesh-like drainage canals surrounding the iris intact. Because SLT is a cold laser, it does not cause scarring or damage to surrounding tissue. Furthermore, unlike ALT, if necessary, SLT can safely be repeated. The treatment, performed in a physician’s office, is covered by most insurance plans including Medicare.

At the age of 16, Williams, a native of Sarasota, began a family tradition he would have been happier to avoid. He was diagnosed with glaucoma. Since then, the disease has been diagnosed in his mother, father and younger sister.

For more than two decades, Williams, a musician and music instructor who has taught for over 37 years, was able to control his glaucoma with pharmaceuticals. However, in the early 1980s, when his ocular pressure reached 38 in each eye, he sought the help of St. Petersburg ophthalmologist, Dr. Mark A. Sibley, FACS, medical director of the Florida Eye Center.

Prior to seeking the services of Sibley, Williams said he was treated with drops and pills by a doctor who used “antiquated techniques.” In fact, under his first eye doctor’s care, Williams recalled having had ALT, which did reduce his eye pressure to a manageable level but necessitated the administration of “extreme amounts of medication drops and pills.”

Worried that his patient was about to go blind with ocular pressures of 38, far above the normal of 12, Sibley sent him to a colleague in Tampa for the purpose of reducing his pressure prior to SLT. One of Sibley’s first SLT patients, Williams received his first SLT treatment in 2001 and maintained normal ocular pressure until 2003, when he had a second treatment. Since then, Williams has been enjoying life free from any glaucoma medications.

A graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., Sibley refers to SLT as “the closest thing to a magic wand for the treatment of glaucoma.” Since he began using SLT in 2001, he estimates treating more than 2,000 patients, 1,900 of whom have thrown away their medications because of the procedure’s success.

After his SLT treatment, Williams said, “I cried when I got normal pressure readings. At the age of 17, I was told I would be blind by age 45. Being blind would end my teaching career. Now I can look forward to retirement in this profession.” He explained that while in college, he had to space his classes around his medication dosages. At one point, he had to back off playing his horn because it put pressure on the nerve in his eyes, worsening his glaucoma.

Today, when he is not teaching or spending time with his wife and three daughters, chances are that Williams is playing his trombone.

For Williams, “SLT is a miracle and Dr. Sibley is one of the true bona fide miracle workers.”

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Page Last Updated:  07/27/2013 06:50:06 AM