This is an interview with Mr. Sam Polakoff for the Glaucoma Education Program.
My first question to you, Mr. Polakoff, is: What prompted you to get your eyes checked when your eye care professional first discovered you had glaucoma?
I am and I was a very nearsighted person. So I was at the ophthalmologist for a routine eye examination, and that’s when they labeled me as a glaucoma suspect because my optic cup, or nerves, were enlarged, and my pressures at that time were stable. But they wanted to continue monitoring me from that point forward.
Had you ever had a comprehensive dilated eye exam before that visit? Did you consider yourself to be at risk for glaucoma?
Yes, I had had a dilated eye exam prior to that visit; and no, I did not consider myself at risk for glaucoma. To be quite frank, I knew next to nothing about glaucoma before that day.
After diagnosis, did you seek out additional information about glaucoma? [If yes] Where did you go for information?
I spent most of my investigative process with the ophthalmologist that had examined me. And they had some pamphlets in the office, which I believe I brought home and read through. At that time, the Internet was not a commonplace occurrence and we didn't have the resource available, so I kind of stayed within [what] the ophthalmologist had advised me of at that point. This was a long time ago now, so that’s why.
How, if at all, has having glaucoma changed your life? Has it prevented you from doing any of the things you used to do for work or for fun?
It doesn't prevent me from doing anything that I once did. I’m fortunate in that mine was discovered early, and I have not lost any sight as a result of my glaucoma. I do notice differences: problems with glare, problems with my eyes adjusting when I walk from a bright environment into a dark environment. Most people, their eyes are able to adjust faster than with a glaucoma patient, where if I walk from, say, a bright lobby into a movie theater and it’s very dark in the theater, it will take me a little bit longer to adjust than it would a normal person. In terms of how it’s changed my life, it caused my wife and I to begin a nonprofit foundation which will continue forever in fighting glaucoma, and we do that in a number of different ways, from creating awareness, providing free screenings in the Baltimore Metro area, and also by holding fundraisers, the results of which we put forth to organizations like Glaucoma Research Foundation, who are seeking a cure, and other organizations who are providing services to the indigent population of Baltimore.
What would you tell others who are at risk for glaucoma? How would you encourage them to get their eyes checked? What is the best reason to do it?
As the result of our foundation’s work, I mean, I’m doing exactly that, literally, almost every day. There are—and I’m sure the constituency of NEI and NIH understands this already—but there are well-known high-risk groups for glaucoma, and we’re doing a number of things to educate those folks who may be at high risk for glaucoma and just aren’t aware of it. So whenever I meet somebody in a high-risk group, I talk to them about it and ask them. In fact, I did this at lunch today with a coworker. I ask this individual, “Anywhere in your history, do you recall a grandmother, a grandfather, an aunt, an uncle, talking about having had glaucoma?” And he said, yes, as a matter of fact he had it in two individual relatives a generation removed, and glaucoma tends to skip a generation. So he, of course, also is of Hispanic origin, and this makes him high risk on two fronts: the Hispanic population tends to see glaucoma manifest itself at a higher rate than others, except for African-Americans, and he also has family history, which is another high-risk factor. So being very familiar with the high-risk factors as I am, when I encounter people who I think may be unaware that they are in one of these groups, I try to make them aware. And from our foundation’s standpoint, we are constantly putting out newsletters, information, and e-mails to our e-mail database encouraging folks to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year if they are in a high-risk group.
What do you think prevents people from getting dilated eye exams to check for glaucoma? Why don’t more people do it?
I think because glaucoma is known as the silent thief, and it operates and robs people of their sight without any overt warning signs, that people are oblivious to it. And like myself before I was diagnosed, I had heard of glaucoma, I’m aware of it. I might even be aware that a distant relative had it or a relative a generation removed had it, but I really never took the time to understand what it is, how it works, and how it’s contained. So I think what prevents people is simply ignorance. And a year or so ago I wrote a poem about glaucoma, and in it there’s a line that says—the poem speaks in the first person as if glaucoma is the speaker—and in it there’s a line that says, “Ignorance is my best ally,” and that's what I think the answer is: It’s simply ignorance.
Are you aware of resources for people who have lost some vision due to glaucoma?
I wasn’t until the last year or so, and then establishing our foundation to fight glaucoma, and with the power of the Internet and meeting many doctors and many volunteers that had come forth to assist us in our efforts, I am now, I think, fairly well aware what the resources are. I’ve had many people come to me with stories of relatives that have eye problems, glaucoma-related and non-glaucoma-related; and because of the knowledge that we’ve gained relative to resources, we’ve been fortunate enough to at least be able to connect some of these folks with the proper doctors or resources, that they can, therefore, research who the proper doctor is.