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Rod and Karen Walker were on their long dreamed-of trip to Italy in May 2019 when a stumble on uneven, rain-slick cobblestones changed everything. After dining out in Rome, Karen decided to head to their hotel before Rod. When he returned to the hotel room, Karen wasn’t there, which didn’t worry him. He figured she’d joined others in their tour group for a drink in the hotel bar. He went to bed. But when Rod woke up at 2 a.m. and Karen still wasn’t there, he went searching for her. “I was walking outside the hotel and my phone rang,” he said. “It was Karen and the only words out of her mouth were, ‘They want to operate on me.’” Karen had fallen face-down on a cobblestone street. In addition to serious bruising on her face and arms, the bones around her eye were broken and the eye, itself, was badly damaged. “She looked like a truck had run over her,” Rod recalls. Thankfully, a bystander had called emergency services and she was taken quickly to a clinic. Karen was transferred to one nearby hospital, then another. X-rays and other tests were performed. But once her condition stabilized, the Italian doctors said they didn’t think there was much they could do to help. They recommended that Karen return home to Laguna Niguel for follow-up treatment. When Rod called their usual ophthalmologist, the doctor recommended two possible places to get the best eye care, including Gavin Herbert Eye Institute. The doctor specifically recommend that Karen see Dr. Jeremiah Tao, a UCI Health specialist in ocular reconstructive surgery.

A series of visits to Gavin Herbert Eye Institute physicians followed because Karen’s eye damage was complex. Her badly damaged left eye had to be removed and replaced with a prosthetic eye. The broken bones of her eye socket required two separate surgeries. Months later, however, she began having vision problems with her good eye. It turned out that a lens placed during an earlier cataract surgery was not in the right position, possibly as a result of the fall, Rod says. That required another surgery. “From the moment we got to Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, they were swift, organized and everyone was very nice,” Karen says. “Every doctor explained everything thoroughly and they seemed genuinely concerned for me.” Rod was impressed that each time a new issue emerged, the physicians at Gavin Herbert Eye Institute knew exactly which specialist was needed and would set up the appointment immediately. Karen’s vision is now good enough for her to enjoy most of her usual activities, including lots of reading with her book club pals of 30 years. Next, she plans to get back to driving herself around. During the months Karen continued to receive follow up treatment, she and Rod learned about the many programs and research projects at Gavin Herbert Eye Institute that depend on philanthropy. Grateful for her treatment and wanting to help, the Walkers contributed to the institute’s high-impact community program, the Eye Mobile for Children, which provides high-quality vision care services to Orange County’s underserved children. They also made an annual gift to the 20/20 Society, which supports groundbreaking ophthalmic research. “It’s worth every penny,” Rod says.

Rod and Karen Walker

Ernie Romo was preparing his painter’s palette one fall evening in 2017 when he began seeing occasional flashing lights before his eyes. A visit to his UCI Health primary care physician was scheduled for the next day, so the Mission Viejo man figured he’d have it checked soon enough. Things were much worse the next morning. “I experienced black lines throughout my right eye,” the hobbyist oil painter said. “I rubbed my eye thinking I just needed to fully wake up. One of the scariest moments was wiping my eye and realizing that it was not going to go away.”

A diabetes link It didn’t occur to Romo to connect this with his type 1 diabetes, which he’d had been diagnosed with at age 18. “I was really hard on myself, thinking this was self-induced,” the 39-year-old restaurant executive, said. “I thought it was my work with art supplies, maybe the solvent or another toxic chemical.” His doctor was immediately concerned — by then Romo couldn’t see at all out of the right eye — and got him in right away at the UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute (GHEI). It was a deeply upsetting experience for Romo, but one that was eased by the imaging technicians, nurses and other healthcare staff led by retina specialist Dr. Mitul Mehta. The diagnosis: diabetic retinopathy, hemorrhaging of the blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. High blood sugar levels can cause the blood vessels in the eyes to swell and leak, causing blindness, one of the leading complications of diabetes.

A possible fix Mehta said he would perform surgery that could fix the problem. Romo said the doctor’s calm yet direct manner made him and his wife Jennifer feel informed as well as in good hands. “He didn’t give us false hope, but he said, ‘I do this surgery all the time,’ ” the restaurant executive recalled. “He was very confident in his communication with us and very realistic.” The day after outpatient surgery, Romo returned to have the bandage removed. He was able to see with his right eye immediately. More than two years later, his vision has remained clear, measuring 20/15. Mehta still monitors Romo’s eyes closely for any changes, given his diabetes. And as a result of their experience, the Romos have become impassioned GHEI donors.

Giving back “We reflected on the question of how on earth do you thank a man for saving your vision?” Jennifer Romo said. The couple asked Mehta, who told them about the 20/20 Society, a group that raises funds to support sight-saving research at GHEI. In addition to giving to the society, the Romos have taken the time and effort to learn more about the work GHEI does and how donations contribute to the cause of vision health for all. “There’s this bigger impact that we weren’t aware of,” Jennifer Romo said.

Diabetic retinopathy on the rise In fact, Romo’s vision problem is all too common these days. “Because diabetes has reached epidemic proportions, we are seeing cases like Mr. Romo’s all of the time,” said Mehta. “Ernie and Jennifer are two of the nicest people I have ever met and I feel blessed to be able to help people like them,” When someone so young loses their eyesight, the end result could be devastating. “I thank them for being so generous and donating to the 20/20 society so we can help even more people through research breakthroughs at the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute.”

Ernie Romo Painter

Dr. Geneva M. Matlock doesn’t just want to battle her own case of age-related macular degeneration. She wants to fight for others as well. That’s why she has become a regular donor to research efforts on the disease at Gavin Herbert Eye Institute (GHEI), generously providing both direct cash gifts and also setting up charitable gift annuities. The annuities guarantee her a fixed lifetime income stream while also providing generous, ongoing, tax-deductible gifts to GHEI. Payments are based on the donor’s expected lifespan, which in her case started when she was 85. “Now I’m 95,” she said with a chuckle. Matlock chose to make her donations toward continuing GHEI’s research on stem cells for retinal regeneration. A retired anesthesiologist, Matlock first noticed something wrong with her left eye about 15 years ago during a trip to New York City. Because her late husband was a retired Air Force colonel, she first sought care through military medical services in San Diego, where her macular degeneration was diagnosed and treated. But the drives from Orange County were wearing. About 12 years ago, she asked knowledgeable people for referrals to the best local ophthalmologist for her condition. They gave her the name of Dr. Baruch Kuppermann, who now is the director of GHEI.

The condition later appeared in Matlock’s right eye as well, but with continued care by Kuppermann, her condition is stable, she said. She lives independently in her San Clemente house, where because of vision-preserving care, “I’m able to look out of my house at the beautiful, wide ocean view.”

Gene Matlock Donor

Ruth and Seymour Lobel moved to Newport Beach from Montreal, Canada in the late 1970s. Seymour, who became a U.S. citizen, established a thriving business that is now run by his four sons, Gary, Harvey, David and Murray. Today, the family remains close and all still live in Orange County with their own families. But several years ago, Seymour was diagnosed with macular degeneration that has since left him legally blind despite the best efforts of specialists at UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute (GHEI) to slow its progression. Ruth Lobel now has the disease. The four sons, Gary, Harvey, David and Murray had their eyes checked and only one shows early sign of the eye disease. The other three are not considered at high risk of developing it. As the Lobel family was going through this trying time, Ruth talked with her family about making vision research at UCI one of the family’s charitable causes. This is how the Lobels, acting together as a family, became regular donors to GHEI, Murray Lobel said.

“If we couldn’t help my father, then maybe we could help others,” he said. “We hope our family contribution to the institute will help bring about the eventual solution to this disease that affects so many.”

Lobel Donors

Helen Shaham had always had extremely poor vision. Her attempts to have it corrected with laser surgery were turned down by doctor after doctor. Then in 2000, she found Dr. Roger Steinert, a pioneer in laser eye surgery in Boston and later, founding director of GHEI. “He had the expertise to work on my cornea,” Shaham said. “He told me that my cornea was very skinny—the one thing I have on my body that is skinny!” she joked. But being nervous about the procedure, she only gave him permission to fix one eye. It took minutes. When she sat up, she could see her husband Jacob through the window, waiting. “I laid back down and said, ‘OK, you can do the other eye now.’” That evening in their hotel, she remarked on a pretty lamp. “You can see the lamp?” her husband asked in amazement. Then he told Shaham something he’d kept to himself—her mother died that day. Shaham said it was as though her mother, who had tried desperately to find help for her daughter’s eye problems, felt she could finally let go. After Steinert moved to Orange County, Shaham would fly cross-country from Florida for her eye care and she brought others to him as well. After Steinert’s death in 2017, she began seeing Dr. Sumit (Sam) Garg. Helen and Jacob Shaham were among the first donors to GHEI. “I want this place to grow and prosper,” she said.

Helen Shaham Donor

Richard “Sandy” Quinn had struggled with his vision for decades before coming to the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute (GHEI). The former marketing director for Walt Disney World in Florida had been diagnosed with diabetes in 1971. Less than 10 years later, after moving to Northern California, he started seeing little black spots called floaters. They’re a sign of diabetic retinopathy and require treatment with lasers.

When Quinn moved to Orange County, he knew that he needed top-notch eye care. He’d already essentially lost the vision in one eye. He consulted Gavin Herbert, whom he knew through their association on the Richard Nixon Foundation board. The eye industry pioneer guided him to Dr. Roger Steinert, the late founding director of the eye institute.

When Quinn needed cataract surgery in 2014, he was treated by GHEI specialist Dr. Sam Garg. “I couldn’t believe the difference in my vision,” he said.

For his ongoing care, Quinn sees Dr. Baruch Kuppermann, director of the eye institute. After years of being treated by many fine eye doctors, Quinn remains especially impressed by the care he has received at GHEI.

“Dr. Kuppermann is very focused on the care of his individual patients. I saw this long before I considered making any donations,” Quinn said. “He was singularly interested in my eyesight and answering any questions. He has this great enthusiasm for eye care."

So when Quinn, who lives in the city of Orange, started writing his will, he decided to include the eye institute.

“I wanted it dedicated to the care of young people,” he said. His $2 million bequest aims to create a chair in pediatric ophthalmology as well as help the institute’s eye mobile, which provides care for underserved children across Orange County.

“I love the eye mobile,” Quinn said. “Imagine how much good that does, traveling to neighborhoods in need and having youngsters be examined and given glasses or treatments or advice.”

Richard "Sandy" Quinn Donor