By Peyton Wesner
Jon Evans loves to read.
Since his eyes learned to gracefully dance between words during his youth, Evans has always had a book in his hands. He reads for work. He reads for research. He reads for enjoyment.
It’s often when he turns the page that Evans thinks about how differently his life would be without reading.
“I’ll be sitting reading, and I just think, ‘If I couldn’t see, I couldn’t do this,’” said Evans, a researcher studying state of Florida history. “My degree is in history, and that’s very reading-intensive.”
During the late 1980s, Evans was diagnosed with glaucoma. He was only in his late 20s. Like reading a cliffhanger at the end of a novel, he was stunned. His family had no history of glaucoma.
“They do that little puff test where they check your intraocular pressure, and when the girl [technician] did it, she goes, ‘Oh,’ which is something that you really don’t want to hear,” Evans said.
Evans was suffering from pigment dispersion syndrome, which occurs when pigment rubs off of the eye’s iris and floats into the trabecular mesh. His optometrist referred him to Francis C. Skilling, M.D., an ophthalmologist in Tallahassee. Evans immediately began all the glaucoma treatments available at the time – eye drops, pills and a drug-delivery membrane called an ocusert. Instead of reducing his pressures, he ended up with throbbing headaches and blurred vision. He was in a fight to save his sight.
“I would think, ‘How much longer am I going to be able to do this? How much longer will I be independent?’” Evans said. “I knew that I was on the road to blindness if something wasn’t done.”
Skilling sent Evans to Mark B. Sherwood, M.D., a professor of ophthalmology at the UF College of Medicine and director of the Center for Vision Research, which was established in 1996. In the weeks leading to his first exam, uncertainty loomed over Evans. Would UF Health have an answer? Could any treatment, perhaps even a clinical trial, lower his intraocular pressure? Would he retain his vision?
“Dr. Sherwood sort of said, ‘These are your choices. You could do nothing, and we know what the result of that would be. Or, you could try this experimental treatment and there is a chance,” Evans said. “Even I could see at that time, ‘Take the chance.’ So, I did.”
Sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the experimental treatment recommended by Sherwood combined surgery and drug therapy at the UF Clinical Research Center. The operation, known as a trabeculectomy, would create a new filtration pathway for Evans’ intraocular fluid, while daily injections of the anti-cancer drug 5-fluorouracil would prevent scaring of the new filtration site within his eye. If successful, the clinical trial would lower his intraocular pressure and preserve Evans’ vision.
“It’s a condition that is nerve-racking to live with,” said Loree Evans, Jon Evans’ wife, who would often accompany him during checkups. “I just felt like someone had beat me up because I realized how nervous I had been, and I’m just the support team.”
Evans knew the clinical trial offered no guarantees. He was unsure what life would look like post-surgery. His questions were answered after a week at the UF Clinical Research Center.
“[Following surgery], my intraocular pressure immediately dropped to acceptable levels,” Evans said. “Over the years, my pressures have remained low, and my visual fields stayed consistent with pre-surgery.”
Since his successful surgery and drug therapy treatment at UF Health, Evans married Loree, raised a daughter, completed three university degrees and taught hundreds of students. He lives life to the fullest and prides himself in never missing a moment.
“I’ve been fortunate because somebody had the foresight to invest in this kind of treatment,” Evans explained. “When I’m here I see people come in and often they’ll have the cup — the protective covering — over one eye and I know it may not be the exact same thing that I experienced, but I can empathize.”
Several years ago, Loree Evans suggested donating to glaucoma research at UF Health. The couple has made annual gifts since that initial conversation. Evans says his giving comes from a place of thankfulness. Both he and his wife understand the important care provided to all patients who choose UF Health for ophthalmology.
“I don’t think there’s been a visit here when one or all of us haven’t been moved to tears by seeing someone go by us in the hallway,” Loree Evans said. “There is so much that goes on here. It’s incredible.”
For more than three decades, Evans has relied on Sherwood and UF Health for eye care. Toward the end of his visits, a research fellow often stops by Evans’ examination room to take a look at his eyes. Evans graciously obliges. He and his wife recognize the value.
“He’s (Jon Evans) always so generous and always encourages them to look, and so I feel like he’s even giving back just in that little act,” Loree Evans explained. “The whole aspect of the teaching hospital is exciting. I’m always impressed.”