In The Line of Sight
“One of the hardest things was not being able to see their expressions,” says Florence Hill Graff about the children of the San Mar Children’s Home where she has volunteered for 51 years. In 2007, the active 93-year-old found her sight and her quality of life diminishing, the result of cataracts in both eyes. “I truly didn’t think that I would be able to see again.”
Enter Esen Akpek, MD, director of the Ocular Surface Disease and Dry Eye Clinic at the Wilmer Eye Institute. A world renowned surgeon, Akpek would not be intimidated by the advanced state of Graff’s cataracts.
In fact, Akpek has always been intrigued by the most complicated conditions that deteriorate eyesight. One of only a handful of surgeons who perform artificial corneal transplants in the United States, Akpek is also currently awaiting FDA approval to test an innovative treatment she’s developed for dry eye syndrome.
“Many people don’t even realize that dry eye can lead to serious sight issues including blindness,” explains Akpek, who in addition to performing the cataract surgery, also treats Graff for dry eye.
When Graff made her first appointment with Akpek, she had already been very well acquainted with Johns Hopkins Hospital; her late husband, Henry F. Graff, MD, had worked alongside Wilmer’s founding director, William H. Wilmer, MD. Nonetheless, her fear of surgery had allowed her cataracts to progress. “But when I met Dr. Akpek, she gave me such confidence,” according to Graff, who immediately consented to the cataract surgery that restored her vision.
“It was liberating,” says Graff about her improved sight, and to show her appreciation, Graff decided to make a gift to help fuel Akpek’s research. “Dr. Akpek gave me back a part of my life, and I wanted to help her help others.”
Akpek – a post-graduate fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1999 – plans for her clinic to become a center for patients suffering from dry eye issues related to diseases like Sjögren’s. Dry eye can be the first symptom of Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease where the patients’ white blood cells attack their body’s moisture-producing glands; it also affects the central nervous system, the kidneys, the liver, and the lungs.
In addition to her leading research in the area of dry eye, Akpek continues performing about 100 corneal transplantations each year. In 2008, she also journeyed to her native Turkey to repair the sight of children from neighboring Iraq. Traveling with a contingent from the non-profit organization Project Hope, Akpek performed multiple surgeries during the rigorous five-day trip.
“I’m just fascinated by the difference you can make in people’s lives by giving their sight back to them,” says Akpek. This is something Florence Hill Graff knows firsthand.