January 12, 2012

Patient’s gift boosts research on blinding eye disorders

Featured Image

Vanderbilt Eye Institute patient Joseph Ellis, right, with, from left, his wife, Barbara, daughter, Patricia, and Karen Joos, M.D., Ph.D. (Photo by Tony Adkins)

Patient’s gift boosts research on blinding eye disorders

Joe Ellis doesn’t need to refer to a special list ranking the Vanderbilt Eye Institute (VEI) among the country’s best ophthalmology practices — it already tops his list.

For the past 15 years Ellis has been a patient of Karen Joos, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at VEI. He credits her, along with Denis O’Day, M.D., with preserving his eyesight.

And in recognition of the superior care he has received, he and his family recently announced the gift of an endowed chair. The Joseph N. and Barbara H. Ellis Family Chair in Ophthalmology will support a VEI faculty member doing research in blinding eye diseases, including glaucoma.

“I really want people to know the level of talent that is available for them at Vanderbilt,” said Ellis. “I put VEI in a class with any of the well-known top practices. The work they are doing is really outstanding and is equal to or superior than anywhere in the country.

“Glaucoma is a silent blinder,” said Ellis. “There is no pain associated with it. There are no real signs, but if you don’t get regular checkups, you would never know you had it.”

Affecting nearly 4 million people in the United States, glaucoma is the second most common cause of blindness. It is a group of eye conditions that leads to damage of the optic nerve, which carries visual information from the eye to the brain. In most cases, damage to this nerve is caused by intraocular pressure (IOP) or increased pressure in the eye.

According to National Eye Institute projections, by 2020, 80 million people worldwide will have glaucoma. The risk of vision loss due to glaucoma increases seven-fold after age 55.

Ellis, who was 50 at the time of his diagnosis, counts himself among the lucky ones diagnosed early enough to receive therapy.

Presently, his treatment involves four different eye drops that are geared to lower the pressure in his eyes. The regimen is working and he continues his normal routine of driving and playing golf.

He is grateful that his daughter, Patricia, has not shown signs of the disease, which tends to run in families.

It is Ellis’ hope that his contribution to VEI will help researchers in their quest to develop better treatments and find a cure for glaucoma.

“We were raised poor and I have not made tons of money, but I have always tried to share what we did have,” said Ellis. “It’s great that I have the opportunity to share whatever I have been blessed with to help research. I hope it saves some eyes down the road.”

Ellis also serves as a member of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute Advisory Board, a group of patients, alumni and community leaders that meets twice a year to learn more about VEI activities and serves as ambassadors for and supporters of the VEI mission.

“The Vanderbilt Eye Institute is incredibly fortunate to have such a generous, caring and grateful patient in Mr. Ellis,” said Paul Sternberg Jr., M.D., chair of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Vanderbilt and director of the Eye Institute. “I am honored by the support Joe and his family are providing to our programs and am confident that it will have a profound impact on our treatment of devastating eye diseases like glaucoma.”

O’Day, who first treated Ellis at Vanderbilt, said he is thrilled that his former patient endowed a chair to support the research and work being done in glaucoma at VEI.

“We are absolutely touched by Mr. Ellis’ generosity,” said O’Day. “This will be an extraordinary benefit to patients and a real boost to critical research and treatments. It has been a privilege to know Joe. I know this gift is from the heart.”