The Gift of Sight Paid Forward 

Mark and Wendy StavishLooking back, Mark Stavish knows how fortunate he was.  

Just as Mark and Wendy Stavish moved into their new home in Raleigh in the summer of 2022, the vision in Mark’s right eye began fading in and out. As someone with a history of benign floaters, he initially didn’t think much of it, but did seek out an ophthalmology recommendation from one of his new neighbors who happened to be a Duke primary care physician.  

By the time Mark made it to his appointment three days later, he knew something was seriously wrong. The diagnosis confirmed it: he had a severe detachment of his retina.  

“It was a bad way to get introduced to Duke,” recalled Mark with humor. “But clinically it was just an amazing experience because everybody handled it so well. Everyone was so professional and Dr. Vajzovic really was amazing.” 

Lejla Vajzovic, MD, an ophthalmologist and vitreoretinal surgeon, was the surgeon on duty who performed the emergency surgery to reattach Mark’s retina. That surgery and two follow-up surgeries for scarring and cataracts related to the reattachment restored Mark’s vision to close to 20/20. He says every experience he had with Duke Eye Center was phenomenal.

“The people, obviously the clinical outcomes, clinical skill, the care, it was just great,” he recalled. “Every resident and fellow that I met was just terrific. And you could tell these are really committed, very, very, very bright young people. And that's what you attract when you're Duke. You get the cream of the crop, and I think that makes the attendings better. It makes all the clinical professionals around them better. And I think it's kind of one of these self-referential loops. It just elevates the clinical skills.”

The couple were so impressed with Vajzovic’s skill as a surgeon and clinician that when they learned of her research to address retinal issues in children, they wanted to help. Toward that goal, they recently made a $1 million gift to support Vajzovic’s research to use state-of-the-art imaging with machine learning analysis for early diagnosis and treatment of pediatric retinal disease.

The challenge with diagnosing retinal disease in children is that by the time they are noticeably symptomatic they are often in danger of permanent vision impairment, or worse, loss of sight.  

“My research aim is to identify concerns in the back of the eye, including any type of retinal, optic nerve, or blood vessel issue, before progression. Early diagnosis is key to saving a child’s vision,” said Vajzovic. “And because technology has evolved tremendously in ophthalmology, we now have the capability to identify areas of concern early on through images without having to do an in-depth examination. Not having to touch the eye or use bright lights helps when trying to diagnose infants and young children.”

The gift provides two years of research support.

“This generous donation has ignited our research,” Vajzovic said. “We have launched a pilot program to assess the efficacy of using images from the back of the eye and algorithmic analysis for ocular screening in a pediatrician's office. Our main goal is to ascertain the method's ability to accurately detect retinal impairments. Furthermore, we seek to evaluate patient benefits, particularly in terms of early identification of conditions and the prevention of vision loss. Our efforts are focused on these fundamental questions and gathering the essential data to strengthen future applications for federal funding.”

Gifts for early-stage or high-impact research can leverage much larger follow-on funding capable of propelling preliminary discoveries into exciting new therapies.

“Dr. Vajzovic is an exceptional clinician, surgeon, and researcher,” said Edward Buckley, MD, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and vice dean for education at Duke University School of Medicine. “Gifts like this one from the Stavishes allow our outstanding faculty to take on innovative projects to advance research and patient care. These gifts are crucial to Duke Eye Center’s sustained excellence. The flexibility of philanthropic funds allows our researchers freedom to be ingenious and pursue new lines of inquiry.”

The long-term goal of this project is to combine access to new technology with artificial intelligence to determine in real-time whether patients should be referred to a pediatric retinal specialist for further evaluation, expediting early evaluation and treatment of possible disease.

“Dr. Vajzovic is just amazing,” said Mark. “She is a tremendous researcher, in addition to an outstanding clinician. And we're really excited for her research because we know that the funds are in really good hands.”

By  Wendy Graber 
December 7, 2023