January 7, 2016

Support for Eye Institute research a family affair

Sight is one of the most critical elements of a normal, happy life. When a child’s eyesight is threatened, his or her future stands to be permanently altered — and parents try to find the best treatment available.

Sight is one of the most critical elements of a normal, happy life. When a child’s eyesight is threatened, his or her future stands to be permanently altered — and parents try to find the best treatment available.

The family of Colette Kotzur was so pleased with the care she received at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute that they made a $1 million gift to help support research there.

That’s what brought Liz Potocsnak to the Vanderbilt Eye Institute (VEI) in 2011. When her infant daughter, Colette Kotzur, had a serious eye condition that required surgery, Liz made an appointment with Sean Donahue, M.D., Ph.D., Vanderbilt Eye Institute’s chief of Pediatric Services and vice chair for Clinical Affairs.

Donahue came highly recommended. He has helped establish VEI as a national leader in the screening and treatment of childhood eye diseases, and is a founding member of the Pediatric Eye Disease Investigator Group (PEDIG) — a collaborative network of pediatric ophthalmologists and optometrists funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI) to facilitate clinical research in childhood eye disorders. He is also recognized as one of the country’s top pediatric eye surgeons.

As a mother, it was a leap of faith for Potocsnak to trust anyone with surgery on her child. She was anxious about her daughter’s future and had done extensive research into their options. After meeting with Donahue and the nurses and staff at VEI, she was convinced that they had the medical expertise and the state-of-the-art facilities required to best treat her child’s condition. She was ushered through the process every step of the way.

Visiting his granddaughter after surgery, John Potocsnak, Liz’s father, was impressed with her care and wanted to meet the faculty members involved. He wanted to see what these clinicians were doing and to learn as much as he could about the journey eye disease takes as it slowly robs a patient of vision.

John Potocsnak, a Chicago business leader, likes to “give his success away.” Through the years, he has supported countless nonprofit initiatives in his community and beyond. It’s a philosophy he has instilled in his children.

“My dad works hard and always has,” said Liz Potocsnak. “He feels connected to people; he understands them. He wants us to use what we’ve been given to help others.”

John Potocsnak spent time with Donahue, who introduced him to Paul Sternberg Jr., M.D., director of VEI, and David Calkins, Ph.D., vice chair and director for research. Potocsnak was intrigued by the Eye Institute’s regenerative visual neuroscience research and wanted to learn more. Calkins explained the interdisciplinary nature of the initiative and introduced him to other Vanderbilt scientists. Potocsnak believed that VEI was “on the brink of something big.”

Thus, a little girl’s eye surgery began a multi-generational journey of philanthropy at the Eye Institute. Through the Potocsnak Family Foundation, John, his son, John Potocsnak Jr., and his daughter, Liz, look for funding opportunities that can transform not only the immediate community in which they are working, but the world at large.

“My dad likes to give gifts that have an impact on a lot of people,” said Liz Potocsnak. “That’s why he’s drawn to what David Calkins and the researchers at Vanderbilt Eye Institute are doing. He likes to see how far a gift can go, how many it can help. He calls it ‘giving smartly.’”

In 2013, the Potocsnaks made a $1 million gift to the Eye Institute to support faculty and research. Over the course of five years, a $100,000 Discovery Grant will be awarded annually to a VEI investigator who submits the winning proposal for a regenerative visual neuroscience project. The first grant was awarded to Rebecca Sappington, Ph.D.

“We wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do this work without the Potocsnak gift,” said Sappington. “These funds have allowed us to develop our model, and now we’re applying for a National Institutes of Health grant to take this research to the next phase.”

Liz Potocsnak, who has worked with her father on several philanthropic projects, including an adolescent clinic in Chicago, now directs the Potocsnak Family Foundation. Her patient experience at VEI has inspired her to get more personally involved and she has recently joined the VEI Advisory Board, where she will help provide strategic direction. A mother whose child’s vision has been saved, she is bringing the same kind of passion to her board work as she did to her research.

“We could never imagine that a trip to the ophthalmologist’s office would lead us to this,” Potocsnak said. “If Vanderbilt Eye Institute can discover new ways to treat and prevent blindness, it will impact people of all ages struggling with devastating eye conditions.”

“This is an amazing gift,” Sternberg said. “The Potocsnaks join a growing list of donors who are personally connected to our work and who want to help, both financially and with their time. We are fortunate that John and Liz have such a passionate desire to give back and make a difference for patients and their families.”