Beating Blindness

At the age of 13, Krzysztof Polis’s doctors told him he would spend his life without sight. It was 1971, and the diagnosis was early-onset glaucoma. 

Glaucoma is the world’s leading cause of irreversible blindness. It affects nearly 80 million people globally and that number is projected to grow as our population ages. The condition attacks nerve cells in the back of the eye and is often linked to increased pressure in the eye.

“Most people who have glaucoma have no clue,” says Dr. Neeru Gupta, a clinician-scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science at St. Michael’s Hospital, and chief of glaucoma at the University of Toronto. “And, once the damage occurs it’s irreversible. Blindness is inevitable unless it’s treated – the earlier the better.”

Krzysztof considers himself one of the lucky ones.  The doctors in his native Poland turned out to be mistaken. 

While still a child, he told his school nurses there was a fog in his left eye and he saw rainbows around the streetlights at night. Concerned, they tested his eye pressure. Thanks to the nurses who caught his glaucoma early and a life journey that led him to St. Michael’s Hospital – Krzysztof’s vision has remained intact. 

“I run my construction business, I still have my driver’s license, I travel around the world,” says the 61-year-old father of two.

Still, life wasn’t always easy for Krzysztof. When he was 14, he had full glaucoma surgery on both eyes. At 24, he left Poland just before its authoritarian communist regime imposed martial law. He came to Canada in hopes of a better life and better treatment for his glaucoma. St. Michael’s was one of his first stops.  

“I’ve been under St. Michael’s care since day one. I told my immigration officer at the airport that I have glaucoma – they didn’t kick me out, they took me in and strongly suggested that I visit St. Michael’s.” 

Three years later, Krzysztof felt pressure in his eyes once again. He was taking six different eye drops every 15 minutes.

“I thought I was going to go crazy. I was running my business and could barely read the numbers on the buildings when I had appointments – it was very hard on me,” he says,

Dr. Gupta performed Krzysztof’s fourth glaucoma operation and later operated on him for cataracts. 

“Dr. Gupta is a miracle-worker,” says Krzysztof. “The care at St. Michael’s is the best in the world.”

He credits St. Michael’s not only with saving his sight, but for taking care of his daughter Natalia, who inherited her dad’s disease. It’s not uncommon. Family members are at higher risk.

Dr. Gupta operated on both of her eyes. Now 28, Natalia is a corporate lawyer in downtown Toronto.

“She finished her education and she went to Australia and finished law school – can you believe it? Dr. Gupta made everything possible,” says Krzysztof.

Early diagnosis and treatment are essential. Treatments for eye pressure slow the progression of the disease and protect vision, but there is still no cure. That’s what propels Dr. Gupta and her team to continue their search. 

“Watching patients go through this every day motivates us to find new ways to treat the disease. Glaucoma not only affects patients, but really impacts families,” she says.

Dr. Gupta recently teamed up with Dr. Yeni Yucel, an eye pathologist and fellow scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, to make a key discovery. 

If we did not have the support of St. Michael's Hospital Foundation and our generous donors, it would have been absolutely impossible for us to do this research. - Dr. Neeru Gupta

“We found a new fluid pathway at the front and then another at the back of the eye that we didn’t know existed, and they are responsible for removing waste,” says Dr. Gupta. “It points to a new direction in therapy because maybe we need to improve our elimination of waste, aside from just dropping pressure in the eye.”

The discovery brings scientists one step closer to finding a cure, and according to Dr. Gupta, opens a whole new door to research.

“If we did not have the support of St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and our generous donors, it would have been absolutely impossible for us to do this research,” she says.

Dr. Gupta’s groundbreaking work has not gone unnoticed. 

“You know, in this world there are amazing people,” says Krzysztof. “Dr. Gupta gave me and my daughter a new chance—a new life.”