A Visionary Bequest to Support Low Vision

Published in Wilmer - Summer 2023

Elaine Diggs still has the letter of appointment she received from the late Maurice Langham, Ph.D. when he hired her as a research assistant at the Wilmer Eye Institute in 1969. Langham was the head of research at Wilmer, which he had joined in 1959 and from which he retired in 1992.

“He gave me a lot of responsibility. I was trained at the bachelor’s degree level, but I had the opportunity to co-author a couple of papers with him, which I still have copies of,” Diggs says. “I spent five years there, which was really significant and very engaging.”

This came to mind last year when she made a New Year’s resolution to establish an estate plan. “And for once, I actually kept a New Year’s resolution,” says Diggs. “I wanted to develop a legacy gift similar to if you’ve had a very positive experience where you studied, perhaps you make a donation. I had a very good experience at Wilmer.” That, as well as advice from a lawyer to choose one cause about which she was very passionate rather than a long list of worthwhile charities, led her to leave a bequest to Wilmer. She chose to dedicate her legacy to advancing research and clinical care for people with low vision.

“This transformational gift is intended to support the development of low-vision clinical specialists, including optometrists, ophthalmologists and allied health professionals,” says Judith Goldstein, O.D., chief of the Lions Vision Research and Rehabilitation Center at Wilmer and an associate professor of ophthalmology.

When Diggs visited Wilmer to explore the possibility of supporting the Lions Vision Research and Rehabilitation Center, she met occupational therapist Kristen Shifflett and was surprised — and gratified — to learn there were specialized occupational therapists who worked with people with vision loss. Diggs’ hope is that the bequest will, among other goals, raise the profile of the low vision program so that more people are aware of and have access to low vision services.

Her bequest will support the formation of the Elaine M. Diggs Professorship in Ophthalmology, which could be awarded to an occupational therapist, optometrist or ophthalmologist. “This is the first bequest that would endow, support and honor the essential role of occupational therapists in providing clinical care as a part of a vision rehabilitation team,” says Goldstein.

“It is so humbling that a former staff member at the Wilmer Eye Institute has the foresight and vision to directly support this specialized rehabilitation, which we offer when medical or surgical therapies cannot restore sight,” says Goldstein. “It demonstrates an understanding of the work we do in uplifting the quality of life and preserving independence. Most importantly, this gift has real value to improving people’s everyday lives in meaningful ways. That is the most gratifying part of both this gift and this work.”

Diggs inherited a concern for vision from her mother. Diggs’ grandmother had glaucoma. Because of this, her mother was very diligent in caring for the eye health of her children. In addition, her mother supported the National Federation of the Blind. This family connection is not the only reason for her bequest, though, since she personally experienced partial vision loss several years ago and became a Wilmer patient.

“We’re all one human family, right? Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for me. I’ve been blessed in so many ways, and I’m not going to be here forever. I would rather have the wealth I have accrued on my own or that I have inherited do good for the world. It ties in very much with my belief in our shared humanity,” says Diggs.