Not a Dry Eye in the House

Published in Wilmer - Annual Report 2019

Dry eye is a condition that is often overlooked, but it is much more common and more debilitating than many people might think. Dry eye affects 25 million Americans, primarily those over 50, and about 90 percent are middle-aged women, says Esen Akpek, M.D., the Bendann Family Professor of Ophthalmology and a foremost authority on the condition, in which natural tears fail to adequately lubricate and nourish the eyes.

While there is currently no cure for dry eye, Akpek is one of the leading researchers working to understand and treat it. In a recent study published in Optometry and Vision Science, for example, she showed that dry eye is not just a nuisance but actually affects vision adversely. She and her team found that the condition can slow a person’s reading speed by as much as 10 percent and make it difficult to read for more than an average of 30 minutes.

“Many of my patients have perfect vision on standard eye tests, but they complain they cannot drive at nighttime or in unfamiliar areas, read small print, or do computer work,” she says.

From a researcher’s perspective, the condition can be elusive. Akpek says she often sees patients complaining of blurred vision, but in the clinic, the blurriness subsides. “We quickly realized that it was due to a poor tear film that is common with dry eye. Every time you blink, the vision blurs,” she explains.

Akpek’s reputation for dry eye research and treatment are what first led Leslie Pfenninger to Wilmer.

Pfenninger had worn contact lenses for years, and her ophthalmologist believed her dry eye was probably caused by the lenses. She underwent LASIK surgery, which successfully corrected her vision but did not improve her dry eye.

“I finally decided I need to see a dry eye specialist,” Pfenninger says.

From the first moment she met Akpek, Pfenninger knew she had found the right doctor. At their initial appointment, from across the exam room, Akpek asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you have rosacea?” Rosacea is an inflammatory skin disease that can affect eyelids where the glands that secrete the top layer of tear film reside. It was a new diagnosis to Pfenninger and a source of surprise when she learned that rosacea, not contact lenses, was the root cause of her dry eye.

“I've been seeing Dr. Akpek ever since. It's been fabulous care,” Pfenninger says of the doctor-patient relationship that now stretches more than a decade.

Pfenninger has been so impressed with Akpek’s care that she recently made the decision to support future dry eye research with a bequest in her estate plan.

Pfenninger’s bequest began not with an appeal from a gift officer, but with a simple question from patient to doctor. “I asked Dr. Akpek about her research,” Pfenninger says. “Just to get her to open up.”

What became clear to Pfenninger from the answer that ensued was that Akpek was extremely passionate about the work but taxed by the competing demands of teaching, seeing patients in the clinic and doing research. So Pfenninger has designated her bequest to fund a research fellowship. It will allow a bright young researcher to learn more about — and potentially solve — a condition that is so vexing for so many people.

Bequests are an increasingly popular way for donors to create a personal legacy and support Wilmer research at the same time. They are surprisingly easy to set up and are welcome in any amount a donor feels comfortable giving. “I am very grateful to the staff on the Wilmer giving team for the work that they put in to make my bequest so simple,” Pfenninger says. “It was a 15-minute process for me.”

For the grateful Pfenninger, the bequest seemed an easy way to say “thank you” to her doctor for such good care over the years, as well as a way to help those who, like herself, suffer from a condition that is too often not taken seriously.

“I hope that there are a lot of folks who can benefit from my small contribution to Dr. Akpek's major contributions to the world,” says Pfenninger.