Eye surgery gives Festus woman new view of the world | Local News
Kayla Patek can see where she’s going now.
“It’s amazing,” said the diminutive 26-year-old, who recently had eye surgery that significantly improved her vision. “My doctor says I can do anything except drive.”
Before her surgeries, Kayla’s vision, even with correction, was poor enough for her to be declared legally blind.
“It was like 20/400 in both eyes, even with my glasses,” she said. “Now my right eye is 20/100 and my left is 20/70 without glasses. I am now considered in the category of ‘low vision’ and not blind.”
Affected with multiple vision challenges since birth, Patek had viewed the world through Coke-bottle-thick glasses, never able to see more than a short distance in front of her.
“We were never given any hope that it could be different,” said her mother, Kerry Patek.
Then, when she aged out of her pediatric ophthalmologist at 18, Kayla began to see Dr. Sean Edelstein, assistant professor of ophthalmology with St. Louis University Hospital, who helped her weigh the risks of surgery against the potential benefits.
“Her level of functioning was deteriorating, and they just couldn’t get her vision any better with glasses,” Edelstein said.
Since having cataract surgery on her left eye in May and the right in June, she now can see the scenery outside car windows, see the TV from across the room, read fine print and check her phone messages at arm’s length instead of with the screen held almost touching her nose.
“It’s not just being able to see more,” Edelstein said.“Her whole outlook, her whole perception of the world is changed.”
Kayla is still trying to get used to the new world in front of her.
“For 26 years, I’ve seen through a cloudy window, and now everything is so clear. It’s taking my brain a long time to adapt,” she said.
Kayla, the daughter of Jeff and Kerry Patek of the Festus area, was a member of the first graduating class of Jefferson High School in 2013 and attended Jefferson College before finishing her bachelor’s degree at Southeast Missouri State University last year, during the pandemic.
“I’d like to get into disability advocacy, but it’s hard to find a job in that field,” she said on Aug. 13.
Three days later, however, she was in orientation for her new position as a cashier for the Goodwill Industries store in Festus.
A tiny fighter
Kayla was born three months early, weighing just less than 2 pounds, and spent the first few months of life in the neonatal ICU at Mercy Hospital St. Louis in Creve Coeur.
“They gave us almost no hope of her even making it, much less anything more,” said her mother. “It was hour-to-hour, then day-to-day, then week-by-week. But she just kept surviving.”
Like many infants born too soon, Kayla suffered from retinopathy of prematurity, a condition associated with abnormal growth of the blood vessels in the retina at the back of the eye.
But she also had a laundry list of other complications, each compounding the rest.
“She had congenital cataracts, as well as a condition called pathologic myopia,” Edelstein said. “They use cryotherapy to treat the retinopathy of prematurity, and she has maculopathy from scarring related to that. She also has nystagmus (involuntary eye movement). All of these things put her at a relatively higher risk of retinal complications.”
Kayla suffered a brain bleed in the first few days as well.
“Micro-preemies are prone to hemorrhages,” Kerry said. “Doctors rate them on a scale, and she had a Grade 4, the most severe. Her first CAT scan, they didn’t really see her brain, there was so much blood.”
Temporary shunts were implanted to help drain excess fluid from her brain, and she had therapy to counter the effects of mild cerebral palsy.
“Her hands were sort of drawn up, like claws almost,” Kerry said. “She had these teeny, tiny little hand braces she had to wear 24/7.”
The temporary shunts were replaced a few years later with permanent ones, which Kayla still has. Around age 10, she was diagnosed with epilepsy.
“(The seizures) are from brain injury and scar tissue,” Kerry said. “They told us they were amazed she made it 10 years before having any. It started slow and got worse, but medication controls them.”
Once Kayla started school, she was able to keep up with her sighted peers, with a few modifications.
“The large print books were hilarious,” Kerry laughed. “She was this tiny little thing, and the books were bigger than she was. We ordered a set for home and one for school, because she couldn’t carry them back and forth.”
Kayla had adaptive devices such as magnifiers available to her, but was often reluctant to use them.
“She never wanted to be treated differently from the other kids. She didn’t want to be different,” Kerry said. “She couldn’t do contact sports, because of her shunts, but she really had no other restrictions.”
Once she got to high school and college, Kayla said she learned to welcome those same adaptive devices she once shunned.
She said the disability office at SEMO was “awesome.”
“I had preferred seating in classes – front row, middle eight seats,” she said. “I had textbooks in electronic format so I could look at them on my computer, and I would have large print materials.”
Staff and faculty went the extra mile to help.
“My favorite professor did her midterm in 18-point font,” Kayla said. “I was super excited when I saw that, because it took away the stress I had in other classes of trying to read the tiny print.”
All the surgeries, the treatments, the years of therapy were worth it, Kerry said, to get Kayla where she is today.
“She has a little difference in her gait, and she’s probably a little weaker than most people,” Kerry said. “But it doesn’t stop her from doing anything.”
As she grew, Kayla’s vision deteriorated gradually until, even with thick glasses, she saw little beyond the end of her arm.
“She has never known anything different,” Kerry said. “She just functioned around it.”
In her early 20s, however, there began to be talk about cataract surgery as something that could be possible.
“I started seeing Dr. Edelstein in 2018, and we just monitored it,” Kayla said. “Then, at one appointment, he said, ‘Well, I think it’s time to do it.’ I was super nervous.”
Her parents were equally apprehensive. “I was so scared at first,” Kerry recalled. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Please, just don’t make it worse.’ I was literally physically sick over it; I was so nervous.”
Edelstein did the surgery under a general anesthetic.
“About 95 percent of these surgeries are done under local anesthetic,” he said. “Because of her age and level of anxiety, we went with the general. Recovery is very quick; the next day she was already seeing better.”
Results were immediate and dramatic.
“Coming home after her first surgery, we were on the highway,” Kerry said. “Kayla looked out the window and said, ‘Mom! I can read that billboard!’ And I almost cried. That was a first for her, being able to see something that far away.”
“Images will be much bigger, brighter than before,” Edelstein said. “She will have some adjustment; she’ll have to get used to reading glasses. She may ultimately prefer to get glasses with a small prescription to use all the time.”
Being able to see has opened up a world of possibilities for Kayla.
“I would definitely recommend the surgery to someone thinking about it,” she said. “I think the benefits outweigh the risks. Don’t let anything stop you from achieving your goals.”