Published: Apr. 8, 2010
Updated: Apr. 8, 2010
From the picture window of his Elizabeth City, North Carolina, home, Charles Gordon and “Sweet Lucy,” his wife, enjoy the breathtaking view of the beautiful Pasquotank River where they can see 12 to 15 miles upstream.
This may not sound like anything short of a miracle, but considering that Gordon was expected to be blind with his original diagnosis of glaucoma, it truly is just that.
The story began 50 years ago when Gordon, then 34, was enjoying the fruits of his labor: happily married to his sweetheart, a beautiful family, his sheet metal business taking off, saving up to build a home.
Wednesday, February 11, 1959 -- a date that Gordon will never forget. Adjusting to his new eyeglasses and reading the newspaper after work, he noticed that he couldn’t see out of the side of his left eye.
First thing the next morning, he went to the family optometrist in Elizabeth City. “The doctor took two fingers and laid them on my closed left eye. He walked immediately to the phone to call Dr. Banks Anderson at Duke and arranged an appointment for me the next morning,” Gordon recalls.
At that time, it was common knowledge that Duke was the place only the sickest people went. “It’s where people went to die. I knew there was a problem,” says Gordon. Bright and early the next day, Gordon drove the 200 miles to Duke and was the first patient in the waiting room. He spent the next nine hours in the basement of the old Duke building, the original location of the Eye Center, where his eye was examined, tested, and photographed.
The diagnosis: glaucoma -- a word Gordon had never heard before. Doctors explained the condition and the prognosis for his acute glaucoma. “Dr. Anderson told me that I wouldn’t have a problem for about 10 years, but what I heard was that I had 10 years until I was blind,” Gordon says.
“I got home and figured I had two options: I could feel sorry for myself, try to do all the research myself so I would be aware of the ramifications, or I could put myself into the hands of Dr. Anderson and Duke and trust that they knew what they were doing.”
Gordon chose the second option and hasn’t regretted it for a minute. “I was determined not to let this diagnosis worry me and affect my family. I thought, if I may be blind in 10 years, I’d better do some things now to get ready. So, I built the house so I could learn to feel my way around it. As for my business and the community projects I was involved with, I pushed glaucoma aside and went ahead with my life.”
Over the next five decades, Gordon had a recurring appointment with Duke -- every 70 days on average. That’s 275,000 miles of driving, or slightly more than 16 round trips from Anchorage, Alaska, to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The pressure in Gordon’s eyes came down dramatically, but in July 1959, Anderson discovered that Gordon would need an iridectomy, a surgical procedure that removes a small piece of the iris, to control the heightened pressure in his left eye.
He spent 10 days in the hospital and the procedure worked. “Since then I’ve had eight surgeries plus numerous laser treatments. I’ve had more drops, ointments, salves, devices -- you name it. I still have my eyesight. That speaks for itself,” Gordon says.
While under the care of Anderson, Gordon’s only restrictions were to avoid using aspirin and to never go to the movies. “Now I ask, why no movies? Nobody knows, but I did what my doc said,” he says.
When Anderson died in 1977, Gordon saw Banks Anderson Jr., MD. When he needed more procedures, Rand Allingham, MD, director of the glaucoma service at Duke, joined his team of Duke eye specialists. Today, Gordon’s team is led by Pratap Challa, MD.
Gordon offers empathy and guidance when he meets people who have eye problems -- and he sends them to the Duke Eye Center for their initial exams because he’s confident they will receive the same outstanding care he gets.
“My son has glaucoma; it’s hereditary. He goes to Duke and gets the same great care I do. I’ve sent people there who were absolutely terrified. I calm them down and tell them what to expect. They come away from the Eye Center ecstatic.”
An active octogenarian who still works in the family business (he says he only works half days now -- from six to six), Gordon’s positive attitude and sense of humor are contagious. He says he is deeply appreciative and fortunate for the incredible care he’s received at Duke and for his eyesight.
Gordon has been an active Eye Center advocate since joining its advisory board in July 1999. He is a welcoming presence to other patients and new advisory board members and has recruited friends from his community who make regular trips to Durham. As far as anyone knows, he has never missed a meeting or an appointment.
What would he tell someone with eye problems today? “Get to the Duke Eye Center to get an evaluation. Even if they confirm what you already know, it’s worth going because Duke is doing the cutting edge research. Other institutions are cutting back on research, but Duke is moving ahead. If there’s something that can be done, Duke will know about it."