“I was watching my favourite baseball team – the Chicago Cubs – at the beautiful Wrigley Field. The atmosphere was great. I picked up my field glasses and went to wipe the left lens which was smeared – I kept wiping it, but it didn’t clear up my vision, which was still blurred in that eye,” said Phillip.

Philip Van Lear
Phillip Van Lear

It was the start of his journey, in 2000, aged 48, when he was diagnosed with open angle glaucoma at Northwestern Hospital University Eye Specialists in Chicago, as he explained –

“It was a surprise as I didn’t feel my vision had been hindered in any way. At that point I didn’t know that glaucoma was rampant through my family on both my mother’s and father’s sides. When I shared the news of my glaucoma with my late mother, she did not miss a beat, replying, ‘Oh honey, your father and I have had glaucoma for years’. To which I could only say, ‘really mom, maybe you and dad could’ve mentioned that, oh I don’t know, a few years earlier, like 20 years earlier."

“Accepting the brutal truth of glaucoma as a life-long experience took a little time for me, but it finally did. It is not a death sentence. It is a life sentence. That’s an enormous difference, so don’t let it hamper you. There are so many devices, and supportive services that help us move forward and lead productive lives.”

Eyedrops were prescribed and treatment started –

“I was not the most compliant patient, and I didn’t start taking the condition seriously until 2005 when I had the first visual field test which gave me tangible proof. Viewing those visual field tests brought my disease into much greater focus. For the very first time, Glaucoma became real to me. When I sat in my doctor's office, and he explained in great detail how the disease was progressing rapidly, it was shocking, to say the least. My vision was impacted severely over a short period of time. Especially in my left eye. The stark contrast visible in the images, coincided with the stark reality of how quickly my life, and how I was going to navigate the world, was changing. By 2015 my condition progressed to end stage glaucoma with a severe deterioration in vision.”

Despite extensive treatments, and nine surgical procedures, Phillip now has no vision in his left eye and 2% vision remaining in his right eye, but he maintains an overwhelmingly positive approach to his life’s work and mission.

“With the deterioration in my sight I noticed a deeper concentration and inner peace. I also had a greater insight in my work. In many respects I have found insight more valuable than eyesight.”

As an ardent supporter of the Glaucoma Research Foundation, Phillip is a keen advocate of greater awareness of the condition. He urges –

“Don’t ignore any changes in your vision – always get your eyes checked, especially African American men like me who, as a result of cultural norms and behavioural patterns, are most at risk. We tend to ignore both mental and physical health matters, often at our ultimate peril. We need to be mindful that we don’t ignore issues with our eyes – see an optometrist or ophthalmologist and be disciplined about taking your eyedrops. It isn’t a sign of weakness to ask for or to seek out help.”

Phillip Van Lear is an American actor most famous for his role in the TV series Prison Break. In 2018 Phillip took an advanced degree in Spiritual Formation and Discipleship. Graduating from Moody Theological Seminary in 2021, he is now an Evangelical minister. He also speaks nationally, raising awareness surrounding issues such as patient advocacy, eye health, and individual spiritual wellbeing for men. He continues with theatre and TV acting and directing roles and a busy family life. His positivity shines through in every word. Phillip lives by the motto “better not bitter”.

“I have had the unexpected blessing of establishing relationships, both personal and professional, which have enriched my life beyond measure. One of those relationships is with the Glaucoma Research Foundation. It is an organization which does amazing work in the fields of development and research, technology, medical excellence, and patient advocacy: They are difference makers.”

To support World Glaucoma Week, Janice English interviewed Phillip Van Lear, on behalf of Heidelberg Engineering, to raise awareness of the importance of early detection of glaucoma and treatment at the right time.

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