Retina Specialist Identifies Urgent Medical Condition, Saves 93-year-old Grandmother’s Life

Evelyn Reyes never imagined bringing her mother Maria to get her eyes checked would save her life, but she is certain it did. Evelyn accompanied her 93-year-old mother Maria to the ophthalmologist for a regular check-up that had been delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon, it was time for Maria to read the eye chart but there was a problem – she could not see the largest letter on the chart with her right eye.

When the ophthalmologist waved her hand in front of Maria’s eye, unfortunately, she could perceive motion but nothing else. The ophthalmologist indicated that what Maria was experiencing was a very serious vision issue and, fearing a detached retina or other emergent retinal condition, she called ASRS member retina specialist Dr. Albert Li’s office to request that Maria be examined right away.

Evelyn and Maria went directly to Dr. Li’s office where he listened to Maria describe her symptoms. Dr. Li did a thorough eye exam and asked Maria when she had last seen her regular doctor or had her vitals taken. Maria indicated at least 3 years had gone by since her last visit with a physician.

Concerned, Dr. Li asked if he could take Maria’s vitals, including her pulse and blood pressure. The results shocked both mother and daughter. “Maria, your heart rate is the heart rate of a marathon runner, it is extremely low and your blood pressure is quite high,” Dr. Li said. “From my initial examination, I can tell that you have a hemorrhage, or bleed, in the back of your right eye affecting your vision, but before we take care of that I need the number of your primary care doctor because you need to be seen immediately.”

Dr. Li spoke with Maria’s primary care doctor and made her an appointment that afternoon. An EKG and consult by a cardiologist showed Maria’s heart was not maintaining a normal rhythm. She was rushed into emergency surgery and had a pacemaker implanted to help her heart beat more regularly.

“If Dr. Li had not taken the extra step of taking my mother’s vitals and contacting her primary care physician, I’m sure she would no longer be with us,” Maria’s daughter Evelyn said. “I will forever be grateful to Dr. Li for saving my mother’s life, not to mention that afterward, he improved her vision.”

Photo of Maria's fundus before treatment.

After Maria received her pacemaker and was feeling better, she returned to Dr. Li and started monthly intravitreal injections (eye injections) to treat macular edema caused by a retinal vein occlusion, in which narrowed veins cause a blockage that restricts blood drainage and leads to fluid building up in the center of vision, limiting vision. “High blood pressure is a major risk factor for retinal vein occlusions, which is often unrecognized by the patient,” Dr. Li said. “I routinely check blood pressure in patients who present with vein occlusions, but I wasn’t expecting a routine check of Maria’s vitals to uncover an urgent heart issue.”

The regular eye injections have made a significant difference in Maria’s vision and Dr. Li’s care has meant the world to Maria and her family. “My Mom and I can both see the difference the injections are making when we see the imaging in Dr. Li’s office and even though her vision will never be perfect, it has improved,” Evelyn said. “I have also experienced a retinal issue and I tell everyone that will listen not to ignore their vision and to see a retina specialist right away if something doesn’t seem right.”