“I helped create the lens that treated my mom’s cataracts”
For Healthy Vision Month, learn about one employee’s very personal mission to help restore vision for people who undergo cataract surgery.
Patricia Piers, Ph.D., has spent the last two decades researching new innovations for ophthalmology patients around the world. As the Head of R&D, Ophthalmic Implants, Johnson & Johnson Surgical Vision, Piers has been at the forefront of a number of life-changing eye surgery innovations, especially in the field of intraocular lenses (IOLs)—tiny, artificial lenses that replace the eye’s natural lens when it’s removed during cataract surgery.
Around 4 million cataract procedures are performed every year in the U.S.; about 60,000 are performed every day globally. Cataracts—an age-related condition in which the normally crystal-clear lens of the eye becomes cloudy—can make the world look as if you’re seeing everything through a dirty window. People with cataracts also tend to become sensitive to light or have trouble with glare or experience halo effects at night.
During cataract surgery, a physician removes that cloudy lens and replaces it with an IOL that remains there permanently. IOLs can also correct common sight issues such as presbyopia (farsightedness), myopia (nearsightedness) and astigmatism (curvature in the eye that causes blurriness).
Piers has always loved her work, and after years of innovating IOLs for patients around the world—patients she’s never met—her work recently hit close to home: Her mom needed cataract surgery and would receive an IOL that Piers and her team helped develop.
For Healthy Vision Month and to celebrate Mother’s Day, Piers shares what it was like to work on a medical device that would eventually help her own mother see clearly—and what she wants everyone to know about the life-changing results of cataract surgery.
Patricia Piers: At first, it was seemingly little things that prompted me to wonder if Mom’s vision was taking a turn for the worse. We’d be walking down the street and she’d miss a step, not noticing that the sidewalk was uneven. Or she’d be at my house and trip on a toy one of my kids had left on the floor—something out of place but that she should’ve seen.
There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have noticed these things if I wasn’t in the vision care industry. After all, her vision issues weren’t serious; she was still getting around just fine. And she wasn’t complaining. My mom doesn’t like special attention, so she brushed off her vision changes as no big deal.
Her symptoms started when she was in her late 60s. By the time she was 74, she was complaining about driving at night. It was especially tough for her to read road signs, and she said the headlights of approaching cars were like big, blinding rings of light. She also found it increasingly difficult to read. What worried me most was the fact that she was increasingly unstable on her feet and prone to falling. Sure enough, her eye doctor confirmed she had a cataract and needed surgery.
Preparing for Surgery
Like a lot of people who are told they need cataract surgery, my mom was nervous. Complicating things: It was the early days of COVID-19 and she was reluctant to leave home—let alone go to the hospital—if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. After many video calls from my home in the Netherlands to my parents’ house in Canada, I managed to convince her that going forward with the surgery was the right thing to do. Her declining vision did make the procedure necessary, I told her. Finally, she agreed.
If patients have a preference for a particular IOL, they can discuss it with their doctor, who will then make assessments to determine what will be the best lens for them. In this case, it was the TECNIS Eyhance™ Toric II IOL. Call me biased, but I genuinely feel every patient deserves to get our lenses; this was especially true for my mother. It has a number of cool features that make it special. Its unique shape was designed to slightly extend depth of focus and it delivers good image contrast in low light.
Thankfully, my mother’s surgery went as smoothly as most cataract surgeries do, which made the six to 12 months of research and two years of development of this lens especially worth it. With each innovation we create at Johnson & Johnson, there are countless hurdles—and celebrations—as we clear them. The fact that my mom received the Tecnis Eyhance Toric II IOL—a true first of its kind—made all the work I did on it that much more rewarding.
I find it hard not to cry when I talk about my mom and her experience. I’ve talked to a lot of surgeons and patients, and it is gratifying to hear their feedback about the products we’ve developed. But it’s a different order of gratifying when it’s someone you love receiving the lens you helped work on.
Seeing Clearly Again
After my mom’s surgery, I asked her how she was doing. For a few days, she told me she couldn’t see so well. I started getting nervous and called my father. “Mom should be able to see well at this point,” I told him, nervously. “What’s happening?”
“She won’t take the eye patch the doctor put on after her surgery off her eye,” he said with a chuckle.
Once she did finally remove that postsurgical eye patch, she could see clearly again—and she was thrilled.
“Why didn’t I do this sooner?” she told me on the phone about a week after her surgery.
I had to laugh. After years of suggesting this procedure, she finally did it—and wished she had listened and done it earlier.
My mom’s experience is similar to that of so many patients who are reluctant to say anything about their worsening vision, thinking there’s nothing to be done about it. If someone you love is struggling with their vision due to cataracts, it’s so important to encourage them to speak to their eye doctor about the possibility of needing cataract surgery.
Our vision is something most of us don’t think about until there’s a problem. As humans we’re able to adapt to less-than-ideal circumstances—but we don’t have to.
I often tell people to think of it this way: A staggering 80% of the information we take in is through our eyes. When our vision deteriorates, not only is our safety impacted, but the way we connect with people is affected, too.
I’m not known for being sensitive, but I find it hard not to cry when I talk about my mom and her experience. It’s a lot of work to get these IOLs introduced. I’ve talked to a lot of surgeons and patients, and it is gratifying to hear their feedback about the products we’ve developed. But it’s a different order of gratifying when it’s someone you love receiving the lens you helped work on. My mom’s surgery reminded me that what we do is so special.