Imagine gradually losing vision in one eye so severely you are bumping into things, and then having your vision restored to 20/40 in that eye through a groundbreaking procedure. This is exactly what happened to Dr. Charlotte Slopak-Goller, thanks to the innovative work of Dr. Itay Lavy, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Hadassah University Medical Organization (HMO) in Jerusalem. He is the leading ophthalmologist worldwide for the secondary corneal transplant, which restored Dr. Slopak-Goller’s vision.
Dr. Slopak-Goller, 73, a retired psychoanalyst who was born in New London, Conn. and made Aliyah 26 years ago, suffered from an eye disease (possibly genetic) called keratoconus. This occurs when the cornea (the clear, dome-shaped front surface of the eye) thins and gradually bulges outward into a cone shape, causing blurred vision and may cause sensitivity to light and glare.
“I had a first corneal transplant in my left eye about 38 years ago at Mt. Sinai Hospital when I was living in Manhattan,” said Dr. Slopak-Goller. Although this procedure’s results lasted many years, her vision slowly began to deteriorate in her left eye and she relied on her right eye. “I stopped driving a car and started to bump into things because I was not using my left eye,” she said. That’s when Dr. Lavy, a cornea specialist, stepped into the story.
“The secondary corneal transplant procedure is to rehabilitate corneal grafts that lost the ability to ‘pump’ fluid from the cornea,” said Dr. Lavy, 41, who improved this life-changing procedure to achieve better results. “Instead of replacing the whole graft, which poses a higher risk for graft rejection, we selectively replace only the diseased part of the cornea.” In contrast to replacing the full corneal graft, he said, “The secondary corneal transplant procedure allows a much lower rejection rate, is much safer during surgery, and in the post-operative period there are much less complications, such as loose sutures because usually no sutures are added.”
Dr. Slopak-Goller describes what led to her miraculous surgery. “At one time, it was almost impossible to do transplants here (in Israel) because of lack of organ donations, which is why I did one (corneal transplant) before I moved here.” She went to Dr. Lavy, based on his reputation as a leading specialist in this field. After a few pre-surgical tests, she got the news she had been waiting for–there were some donor corneas ready–and she went to the hospital. “On the morning of Thursday, January 23 (2020), Dr. Lavy took endothelial cells from a donor cornea and planted them on my left cornea,” she said. “In the past, transplants were sewn in. He does not do stitches, he attached them with pressure. It was uncomfortable the first day, until he lessened the pressure, and I went home the next day for Shabbat, returning on Sunday to be checked.”
In his two and a half years at HMO, Dr. Lavy has performed about 30 secondary corneal transplants, approximately 1 to 2 every month. “I am very proud, we have a very high success rate,” he said. “Most of our patients return to their original vision, sometimes it’s even getting better. The rehabilitation period is usually about one to two weeks, much less than replacing the whole graft.”
Regarding the recovery time, Dr. Slopak-Goller said, “I had to lie only on my back for another week, not leaving home. I returned for tests and check-ups on February 3 and another visit two weeks later.” Her followup also included using three types of eye drops, and she will probably need new eyeglasses.
Dr. Slopak-Goller added, “We were all amazed that I have almost 20/30 in the right eye and 20/40 in the left eye (with glasses), with the second transplant. The doctor was very happy that my eye healed so well. As was I. I was able to return to all activities, including exercise with my trainer.” Dr. Slopak-Goller happily reports, “I am stronger than ever. I can do a plank for two and a half minutes! At my age!”
The intersection of these two doctors’ lives is fascinating–an ophthalmologist from Beer Sheva and a psychoanalyst with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology who spent most of her career in New York City. Their paths crossed at HMO, which gave Dr. Slopak-Goller a second chance for her eyesight.
But Dr. Slopak-Goller already had a strong connection with Hadassah, even before her first visit to the hospital: “My mother, in Connecticut, was a Hadassah Life Member, and made my sister and me Life Members. We are a Zionist family.” All three moved to Israel at different points in their lives. Dr. Slopak-Goller is “more or less retired,” and she keeps busy with an array of activities including tutoring at a college, volunteering with seniors, taking classes in Jewish history and her favorite activity of all–reading two books a week. Now she has the vision to do it all!
This is the second of four articles about medical breakthroughs from Hadassah Medical Organization, a world-renowned healthcare leader and a global destination for advanced care, continued innovation and cutting-edge research. As part of Hadassah’s “360 Degrees of Healing” initiative, the iconic Round Building at Hadassah’s Ein Kerem campus in Jerusalem is being modernized and expanded to advance its services as the hub of innovative medicine.
This article is presented by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA) which is a volunteer organization founded in 1912 and is committed to strengthening a connection to Israel, building a better world through medicine and healthcare, and US advocacy around women’s health.
For more information, please visit www.hadassah.org