Olivia Eafano was watching television when suddenly, she couldn’t see the screen. Then just 5 years old, the Georgia teen recalled feeling terrified.
-“Mom, I can’t see!” she called to her mother who was in the next room.
Eafano’s mother rushed her to the hospital where doctors diagnosed Eafano with two eye conditions: uveitis, an inflammation of the middle part of the eye, and glaucoma, a potentially blinding disease.
Thus began the Eafano’s quest to find proper treatment for her serious eye conditions.
“Glaucoma are a group of diseases where there is progressive damage to the optic nerve, which is the pathway that takes vision from the eye back to the brain,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Schultz, director of the glaucoma service at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “It is usually but not always associated with increased pressure in the eye.”
Although often thought of as a disease of aging, glaucoma can strike in very young children, causing headaches, blurry vision and enlarged eyes. Up to 2 percent of the population lives with glaucoma, according to the National Eye Health Education Program. Of those, up to 2 percent are children.
Many don’t realize they are affected until they lose sight in one of their eyes, warned Dr. Stephen Foster, the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Eye Research & Surgery Institution and the doctor who ultimately wound up treating Eafano.
“People generally lose their peripheral vision first, and then the damage slowly marches centrally," he said. “It’s often called the ‘sneaky thief’ of vision because many people have no symptoms until it reaches the central vision.”
At that point, the disease has progressed to a late stage, and the damage is severe and usually irreversible, he added. But with early detection and the right treatment, a patient’s sight can be partially or completely restored.
Schultz recommended that every child have a full eye exam starting at age 2 and then every year thereafter. Since a high percentage of glaucoma is hereditary, knowing family history for eye disease is also important.
Fortunately, in Eafano’s case, the disease was caught and treated in its early stages. Under Foster’s guidance, Eafano has undergone a series of treatments to slow down the damage in her eyes, including medication and four surgeries. Now at age 16, she is in remission with 20/30 vision when wearing her glasses.
Eafano says battling glaucoma has changed her outlook in life. She is extremely grateful for the simple gift of sight. On a recent trip to New York City, she reflected on what it would be like if she couldn’t see.
“I wouldn’t be able to see the lights on Broadway or notes on a piece of music -- any of the beautiful things I could take for granted,” she said.
ABC News Health and the NEHEP are holding a tweet chat today at 1 p.m., ET to help the more than 3 million Americans living with glaucoma. Our chat is moderated by Dr. Richard Besser, chief health and medical correspondent for ABC News, and we’ll be joined by dozens of experts from all over the country.
Join us to learn more about the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of this debilitating eye condition. Here's How.
Additional reporting by Liz Neporent.