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A painter’s sight preserved

Posted: 2023-11-30

Source: UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute Shine the Light
News Type: 

The way Mary McKay Schaffer sees it, her ophthalmologist not only saved her vision, she saved her life.

Schaffer arrived at the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute in November 2020 for a routine visit with Dr. Sameh Mosaed. A few years earlier, Mosaed had performed surgeries to treat cataracts in both of Schaffer’s eyes, as well as mild glaucoma. The procedures restored her vision and she no longer needed glasses. But she still visited Mosaed several times a year for checkups.

An avid painter, Schaffer relies on her sight to choose and mix acrylic paints in search of the perfect colors to bring to life her richly textured portraits of musicians with their instruments, chefs in kitchens and women deep in contemplation.

“Painting is the most natural thing I have ever done,” Schaffer says. Although she always loved drawing and painting, she took a 40-year hiatus to work as a special education teacher, then as a booking agent for professional speakers. Today, the 76-year-old Dana Point resident draws inspiration for her paintings from her childhood in North Carolina, a decade of living in Hawaii and now her life in Southern California.

During a visit to the eye institute in fall 2020 for routine tests, Mosaed also checked Schaffer’s field of vision. She looked intensely at her patient and said calmly, “Go to the ER right now. You are having a stroke.”

Shocked at the idea of any vision problems, Schaffer had her husband drive her directly to the ER. An MRI revealed she was having an acute ischemic stroke that was affecting her right occipital lobe — the part of the brain responsible for vision, including spatial and color recognition so vital for her painting.

At a follow-up visit with Mosaed, the patient recalled a strange moment weeks earlier. While walking with her husband around Dana Point Harbor she didn’t recognize a building she’d been strolling past for years. Mosaed’s test that fateful day revealed why Schaffer was missing half the field of vision in each eye — a telltale symptom of a stroke.

“I had no visible signs of stroke or disabling characteristics or complaints,” she recalls. “But in her calm and professional manner, Dr. Mosaed told me to go straight to the ER. No drama. That’s right up there with the best advice I’ve ever had.”

Schaffer stayed in the hospital two days for treatment to dissolve a blood clot in her brain that was causing the stroke. Her doctors were delighted to find no lasting effects to her speech or gait. Astonishingly, her eyesight had returned to 20/20 vision.

“This is extremely unusual to have reversal of vision loss in these types of cases,” says Mosaed. “It proves that she was treated before permanent damage was done to the brain. There is a very short window of time before the loss is permanent, typically within a few hours.”

Now during her still-routine visits to the eye institute, Schaffer enjoys telling the medical staff that Mosaed saved her life and watching for the look of surprise to cross their faces before sharing the whole story. With each recounting, she reaffirms her gratitude and great fortune to have had an appointment the day she was having a stroke — and that her physician was Mosaed.

“In comparing her with any doctor I have seen, or any doctor who has ever provided me with surgery or advice, Dr. Mosaed ranks No. 1.”