Quest for better vision no longer just a vision

The Truhlsen Eye Institute broke ground on Dec. 6.

jue, dic 9, 2010

If you’re reading this with healthy eyes, you’re not like Hal Spurrier.

The retired Lincoln business owner and University of Nebraska grad was diagnosed with glaucoma 42 years ago, when he was just 28.

“I was too stupid to know how bad it was,” he says, smiling.

The eye drops in those days had terrible side effects. They made his eyes red. They dilated his pupils to the point he could no longer play tennis, a sport he loved—one eye would be blown up and the other would be small. He lost his depth perception.

“Those drops would actually make my vision twice as bad. I’d wear contacts and I’d wear giant glasses over the contacts.”

For years, he kept the disease at bay with drugs. But over time, one by one, each drug became ineffective and he’d have to find another. By the early 1990s, he’d tried every drug possible. None was left.

It appeared the glaucoma was going to win.

Lucky for him, he moved from California back home to Nebraska around that time and became part of a clinical trial for a new glaucoma drug being developed by UNMC ophthalmologist Carl Camras.

Spurrier had no idea that the med center had such great clinical faculty in people like Camras and Dr. Stanley Truhlsen, another legendary ophthalmologist. He had no idea they were already doing world-class eye research.

The drug developed by Camras worked. It stabilized Spurrier’s glaucoma, with no side effects.

The drug, latanoprost, is now the gold standard around the world for treating glaucoma.

“It was a tremendous breakthrough,” Spurrier says. “And it happened right here.

“This is an unknown secret—how good these guys here are.”

On Dec. 6, Spurrier watched from the crowd as NU officials, Dr. Truhlsen and other dignitaries broke ground for the Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute. (Dr. Camras’ widow attended the groundbreaking. Dr. Camras passed away in 2009.)

The institute will transform vision care in the region by bringing UNMC researchers, clinicians and patients together in a state-of-the-art facility.

The first phase—a 47,000-square-foot building expected to be finished in late 2012—will include:

A children’s eye care center.

Space for clinical research.

A regional diagnostic center.

Outpatient eye exam facilities for all eye subspecialties.

A surgical wing will be added later.

The institute is named for Dr. Truhlsen, who gave the lead gift for the center.

The new building will be at 40th and Leavenworth streets in Omaha, west of the Weigel Williamson Center for Visual Rehabilitation and the Home Instead Center for Successful Aging.

Clinical studies at the new institute will concentrate on the department’s current strengths, including glaucoma, cataracts and retinal diseases such as macular degeneration.

Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness. It affects more than 2 million people in the United States. Another million people have it but haven’t been diagnosed.

By the year 2020, age-related eye diseases like glaucoma will increase by 30 percent in the United States, says Dr. Thomas Hejkal, chairman of the UNMC Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

That’s going to create a need for more eye care specialists. The new facility, Hejkal says, will allow UNMC to train the next generation of eye care specialists to meet those needs.

The plan, he says, is to double the number of faculty members, which should double the number of patients they’re able to see.

“We’re tremendously excited about this great new venture,” Hejkal says. “We’ve been limited in our ability to take those advances to patients because of our outdated and obsolete clinical facilities.

“This is going to enable us to get to the next level, and bring those research advances to our patients, and bring the best eye care in the world to patients here in this region.”

But the goal of the new institute, he says, is not just to treat eye problems.

It’s to find cures for blindness.

Spurrier feels lucky to have found the med center.

“Ultimately,” he says, “that drug probably saved my sight.”

He still doesn’t see well enough to play tennis. His right eye has no vision in the center. But his left eye is pretty good. He can drive a car during the day.

“I can’t see little things, like a golf ball.”

He smiles.

“But I do play golf.”

Developing the Truhlsen Eye Institute is one of UNMC’s top three priorities for the Campaign for Nebraska: Unlimited Possibilities. If you’d like to help support the institute, please contact Karen Levin, 402-502-4921. You also can donate to it online.

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