Formerly blind Lombard woman builds new life after complex surgery

March 13, 2019 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Heroes
Annie Pawlisz was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1996 when she was 5. By the time she was 22, she knew the condition increased her risk for a host of health problems, including heart disease, nerve damage and blindness.

Still, she wasn’t too worried in early June 2013 when her vision began to blur. Her boyfriend Kevin Pawlisz recommended she see an eye doctor.

“I just said ‘yeah, yeah,’ but when I went out to drive the short distance to work I almost went up on the curb,” Pawlisz recalls. “I came back in and made an appointment for the next day with an optometrist.

“After he dilated and tested my eyes he referred me to an ophthalmologist, Dr. Weinberg.”

Aaron Weinberg, M.D., is a member of the Elmhurst Hospital medical staff and Retina Associates, a medical group started by ophthalmologist Kenneth Resnick, M.D., in 1991. The practice specializes in retinal and related disorders. The retina is the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye.

Dr. Weinberg says when Pawlisz came in for her appointment, “She could only see shadows. Her blood sugar levels hadn’t been under control for a while and her vision problems had progressed to an advanced form of retinopathy called proliferative diabetic retinopathy.”

He had to give her the difficult news that she was legally blind (vision of 20/100 or less) in both eyes and would need surgery.

“Diabetes affects the blood vessels in the eye,” says Dr. Weinberg. “At the early stages of retinopathy these vessels become weak and leaky. When the blood leaks into the retina it can cause swelling which requires treatment, and Annie hadn’t had any treatment.

“In the advanced stages of retinopathy, the appropriate blood vessels shut down and new blood vessels form in the wrong places. Eventually, scar tissue can cause the retina to detach from the eye.”

These changes can destroy vision.

In addition to advanced retinopathy, both of Pawlisz’s eyes had detached retinas and hemorrhages in the vitreous, the gel-like substance between the retina and the eyeball.

Says Dr. Weinberg, “Diabetic retinopathy at this very severe stage is difficult to fix. The surgery would be 1,000 times more complex than it might have been earlier.”

“I didn’t expect surgery to dramatically improve my vision but I thought it would get somewhat better,” says Pawlisz. “Kevin and I even started researching jobs that you could do with very limited vision.”

Later that June, Dr. Weinberg began a series of six surgeries, three in each of Pawlisz’s eyes. The first two surgeries, which each took 1-1/2 to 2 hours, removed scar tissue and problematic blood vessels, and controlled the hemorrhaging. The second pair of surgeries placed an oil bubble in the eye to push the retina back in position. The final two surgeries, performed in December 2013, removed these bubbles.

“Dr. Weinberg encouraged me but didn’t promise anything,” says Pawlisz. “After each surgery he said, ‘It looks good, it’s promising.’ It also helped that I had a great support system in Kevin and his family.”

Pawlisz finished the surgeries and recovery periods with excellent results. She returned to work in March 2014.

“Annie now has the vision needed for independent living, including reading,” says Dr. Weinberg. “With all the advances in diabetes care, such as the insulin pump, she’s able to more easily control her blood sugar levels.”

Dr. Resnick says, “Diabetic retinopathy patients who need surgery also benefit from today’s smaller-than-ever surgical tools that allow for more precise, safer and more tolerable surgeries.

“It’s important that diabetics get regular eye exams, especially since there aren’t always symptoms in the earliest phase of retinopathy. Treatment with one of the newer injectable medications or lasers can often help if the condition is caught early.”

“A lot of little things you take for granted, like driving a car, cooking safely, or even shaving your legs, I couldn’t do alone before these surgeries,” says Pawlisz. “Now I can function as an adult. I don’t need constant assistance.

“I used to think many of the things I wished for wouldn’t be possible — having a family, working, getting a house. But now I have a job in the floral business, Kevin and I got married two years ago, and I’m having a baby in August. Without Dr. Weinberg’s skills, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Learn more about diabetes care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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