Before Leslie Hyman was an internationally recognized vision epidemiologist and before she was named vice chair for research at the Vickie and Jack Farber Vision Research Center at Wills Eye Hospital, she was a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University searching for a dissertation topic.
An adviser suggested Hyman look into factors associated with vision impairment. Hyman dove in, embarking on a massive case control study. One of the first patients she interviewed had lost central vision in one eye.
“He looked at me and said, ‘If you wanted to kill yourself, how would you do it?’” Hyman said.
It was then that Hyman realized how important vision is to people’s lives, and how heartbreaking its loss can be. She’s since dedicated herself to identifying causes of vision loss, which led her to Wills Eye in February 2016.
Now, a recent donation to the hospital has Hyman and her colleagues giddy.
Jewish philanthropists Vickie and Jack Farber donated $5 million, creating the Vickie and Jack Farber Research Center at Wills Eye. The couple previously gifted the hospital a $2 million grant that helped set Hyman’s hiring in motion.
“Vickie and Jack Farber are modern Medicis,” said Wills Eye ophthalmologist-in-chief Julia A. Haller, in reference to the wealthy family credited for funding many Renaissance artists. “That’s really, really special because it makes Philadelphia a better city and ensures its future is bright.”
Wills Eye has the largest eye practice in the United States, Haller said, and U.S. News & World Report ranks it as the nation’s No. 2 hospital for ophthalmology. The institution prides itself on its close connection between innovative research and advanced patient care. It provides the full range of primary and sub-specialty eye care for improving and preserving sight, including cataract, cornea, retina, emergency care, glaucoma, neuro-ophthalmology, ocular oncology, oculoplastics, pathology, pediatric ophthalmology and ocular genetics and refractive surgery.
Hyman’s Jewish faith played an integral role in bringing her to the hospital. She cited tikkun olam as a guiding force in her professional trajectory.
Jay Katz, director emeritus and attending surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital Glaucoma Service, echoed that sentiment.
“As a child growing up, we were always taught to have tzedakah and care for others, so that’s partly why I got into medicine,” Katz said. “My mission was to help others in the community and the best way I could do that was through medicine.”
That’s a value shared by the Farbers, who are no strangers to supporting local medical facilities. The couple helped fund the Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Now they’re committed to Wills Eye taking the next step.
“Wills Eye is a great institution with incredibly talented people who are motivated, forward-thinking and committed to advancing scientific knowledge,” Jack Farber wrote in a statement. “If you put those energies together with financial support to accelerate the rate of progress, you truly make a difference in patients’ lives.”
“It’s transformational for us,” Haller said of the Farbers’ gift. “It’s like one of those rockets that lifted off the space shuttle. It jet fuels our research program here.”
That jet fuel will help Wills Eye organize its patient data in bigger and better data sets, among other things, Haller said. Ideally, the data sets will facilitate the hospital’s ability to better understand risk factors and, eventually, make medicine more personalized for patients.
It’ll also allow Wills Eye to launch pilot projects, hire research staff and put infrastructure in place without grant money. Research funding is harder to come by these days, Haller said, so it’s imperative for research centers have to have a leg up on the competition.
“We know this place is phenomenal, but things don’t just stay the same. You have to be able to work really, really hard to stay on top of your game,” Haller said.
“In medicine, there’s a never-ending list of projects to help improve our understanding,” Katz said. “A gift of that magnitude is a wonderful opportunity to answer many questions.”
Hyman is intrigued by the prospect of Wills Eye looking into the field of telemedicine. She said there’s a high risk of diabetes and glaucoma in marginalized communities, where many people don’t have access to affordable health care.
“By using telemedicine and developing the right models, we can deliver care to underserved populations,” she said. “We’re looking for ways to do that.”
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