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Worth the Flight: Traveling from Texas to Boston for Sight Saving Care

A low-risk cataract surgery unexpectedly left Texas resident Michelle Randolph, a professional photographer, with blurred vision in her left eye. After years of struggling to find answers, Michelle began to give up, until a close friend suggested she travel across the country to Mass Eye and Ear.

After moving to southern Texas in 2013, Michelle Randolph’s photography business began to boom. She quickly became well known for her draft horse photography, getting invited to horse shows around the world to capture photos.

However in 2019, Michelle’s life abruptly changed when she underwent routine cataract surgery in her left eye, or her “shooting eye,” and woke up with blurred vision. She had successful cataract surgery prior in her right eye and immediately panicked when the results were not the same as before.

“I knew something was wrong right away,” said Michelle. “With the right eye, I could see really well afterwards but the left eye… little to nothing. Everything was distorted.  And being a photographer, it put me in a tailspin.”

Making a Mass Eye and Ear Connection at Home

For months after Michelle’s cataract surgery, she searched for an answer as to why her vision was blurred. In Texas, she visited doctor after doctor, and no one was able to identify the issue. They suggested she try different glasses with particular lenses, but nothing was working.

Michelle Randolph self portrait, holding a camera
A self-portrait of Michelle Randolph holding her camera.

Michelle had to stop driving because she couldn’t see the road signs clearly, which affected her ability to travel for horse shows. Editing her own photos also became challenging because the images looked fuzzy.

Even completing simple, daily tasks like going to the grocery store turned difficult as she couldn’t read the aisle signs or see the brands of products clearly.

In 2021, Michelle posted on social media that she would be unable to continue shooting horse shows because of her eyes—a devastating decision she knew she needed to make for the time being.

She began to give up hope until one day, at one of her presumably last horse shows, a close friend Victoria McCullough, a long-time Mass Eye and Ear trustee, heard about how Michelle’s vision loss had been negatively impacting her life as a photographer. Victoria even noticed Michelle trip over nothing due to her vision distortion.

Immediately, Victoria insisted flying Michelle out to Boston to meet with Demetrios Vavvas, MD, PhD, director of the Retina Service at Mass Eye and Ear.

Michelle was apprehensive due to the lack of progress in Texas, but she eventually agreed; a decision that would soon save not just her eye, but her photography business.

Texas ⇒ Boston

In April 2022, Michelle landed in Boston for her consultation with Dr. Vavvas. At the very first appointment, he told Michelle that her eye was “fixable” which Michelle shared was “music to my ears.”

She was diagnosed with a macular pucker, otherwise known as an epiretinal membrane, which is a rare eye condition in which a layer of scar tissue forms on the center part of the retina, called the macula. A macular pucker can occur as a result of aging or after injury or eye surgery.

Michelle wondered how this had gone unnoticed at her previous doctor visits, and Dr. Vavvas inferred that it was most likely noticed, but since most puckers usually do not cause major vision issues, it is possible that it could have been assigned a lesser importance.

However, Michelle’s pucker was in the center of her retina, likely causing the vision distortion.

“I always wondered if it was my fault no one would help me because I had difficulty describing my vision and how I was seeing things, but then I met Dr. Vavvas and knew it wasn’t me,” said Michelle.

After Michelle’s consultation, the next step was to undergo a surgery called a vitrectomy. During the procedure, surgeons remove some of the vitreous, which is a jelly-like substance that fills the middle of the eye, before removing the scar tissue from the macula.

Photograph of six draft horses taken by Michelle Randolph. Credit: Michelle Randolph

Knowing the long flight Michelle endured to visit Mass Eye and Ear, Dr. Vavvas helped connect her with well-known doctors in Houston who were available to perform this surgery.

Michelle had a lot to consider about where she felt most comfortable having the surgery. She already felt immense trust in Mass Eye and Ear after Dr. Vavvas diagnosed her when no one else could.

Not only had Michelle been impressed by her own personal experience, but when she was staying at a hotel adjacent to the hospital, she began to hear stories about Mass Eye and Ear’s work from strangers.

“People were sharing their stories about how ‘Mass Eye and Ear saved my sight’ just in conversation…they didn’t even know my background. It was incredible,” recalled Michelle.

After taking some time to consider, Michelle made her decision. Sitting with Victoria in the hotel lobby, Michelle said, “I’m coming back up here, it’s my shooting eye and I don’t want anyone else touching it.”

Getting Back in the Saddle

Just under three months later, Michelle flew back to Boston to undergo surgery at Mass Eye and Ear. On July 6, 2022, Dr. Vavvas performed the vitrectomy and when Michelle awoke, she felt immediate relief.

Photo of Michelle Randolph with a draft horse she had photographed.
Michelle Randolph with a draft horse she had photographed.

She had realized her right eye (which was never her strong eye, lacking peripheral vision) was overcompensating for her left eye which was causing her terrible migraines. Just a few weeks after surgery, Michelle’s vision was tested, and she was seeing 20/20 again with her glasses on. Her headaches drastically decreased, and she felt back to “normal”—or how she was pre-cataract surgery in 2019.

With Michelle living in Texas, Dr. Vavvas agreed she could see her regular ophthalmologist for follow-up appointments and encouraged her to reach out to him if she had any issues or questions.

About six weeks after Michelle’s surgery, she was fully recovered and back to doing what she loves: draft horse photography.

Since her summer surgery, Michelle has traveled all around the country to attend horse shows, most recently making the long drive alone to Indiana. Her photography opportunities have been non-stop and soon, she’ll be going overseas to Scotland for another show.

“I actually had two people in the last show tell me that I was glowing because of my eyesight,” Michelle said. “How could I not be? Mass Eye and Ear gave me a new lease on life, and I can’t thank everyone there enough.”

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