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Irma's Story: Laser Surgery Prevents Vision Loss in Patient with Diabetic Retinopathy

Advance With MUSC Health
March 13, 2024
Scan of an eye

An infection that had spread to her muscles landed Irma Lopez in the hospital. The infection was MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a cause of staph infection that is difficult to treat because of antibiotic resistance. During her four-month stay, Irma’s medical team discovered and shared with her that she had diabetes. Irma received treatment and the right care for diabetes, including almost immediate surgery for a deadly but silent eye condition.

“When they encouraged her to walk during physical therapy, she realized she couldn’t see all the people that were around her,” said her daughter Alexandra, recalling the scene in her mom’s hospital room.

“It happened in the evening and then in the morning. It was like I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces — I could see somebody’s eyes but not their mouth, or their face but not their body,” said Irma. “So doctors from the Storm Eye Institute came to see me that same day, and I got referred to Dr. George Magrath immediately for laser surgery.”

Ophthalmology specialist Dr. Magrath explained to Irma that she had diabetic retinopathy. “My blurry vision was a result of the blood vessels in my eyes bursting,” she said.

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition that can cause vision loss and blindness in people who have diabetes. It affects blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive layer of tissue in the back of the eye. High blood sugar levels cause these blood vessels to swell and damage the retina.

The Importance of Eye Exams in Diagnosing Diabetes

Because of the risk of diabetic retinopathy, it's important for people with diabetes to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. Since Irma wasn’t aware she had diabetes, she wasn’t aware of the importance of eye exams. Diabetic retinopathy has no signs or symptoms and often causes only mild vision problems. Yet it’s the leading cause of blindness in American adults. Early detection and treatment is key.

Preventing Vision Loss with Photocoagulation

Dr. Magrath performed laser surgery, called photocoagulation, which helps prevent vision loss by slowing the leakage of blood and fluid in the eye. Irma also received an injection of vascular endothelial growth factor inhibitors to help prevent the condition from getting worse.

“After I was discharged from the hospital, I was referred to Dr. (Emil) Say to continue the treatment injections to prevent fluid buildup in my eye,” said Irma. “Dr. Magrath told me I would be in good hands with Dr. Say, and he would also continue to monitor me.” Say is a retina specialist at MUSC Health Storm Eye Institute.

“Every few months, I would have an appointment with Dr. Say to get an injection. The first few years, I would go for treatment every three months, then it went to every six, and now I haven’t needed one for three years,” said Irma.

“Dr. Say always says that she’s doing really well and that it’s a miracle,” said Alexandra.

“The doctors at MUSC were all very nice, and even though I couldn’t understand them fluently in English, they always tried to help,” said Irma. “When Dr. Magrath came to see me, he took me for treatment that same day. He and Dr. Say are the best things that have happened for my eye health.

“Without them, I probably would have lost my vision.”

To learn more about retinal conditions and treatments, visit MUSC Health Storm Eye Institute or call 843-792-2020.