Debra Owens is a smart and resilient woman possessing an impressive resume in professions typically inhabited by men. In her fascinating career, she has been a financial analyst for both cultural icon Waffle House and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. She was the “go-to” professional her bosses called upon for the tough jobs—even in male-dominated situations. Her financial acumen combined with an incredible work ethic—and a resolve to get to the facts—led to many accomplishments along the way. However, her flourishing career path took a turn a few years ago when a family issue demanded her attention.
It was at that point that Owens suddenly became a loving caretaker, tending to the needs of her beloved father who had first developed glaucoma, then age-related macular degeneration, and, lastly, cancer, which caused his death. Over many decades, Don Owens established a successful commercial real estate business in Calhoun, Ga. and was rightly held in high esteem by his community. Early in her career his daughter had worked with her father, handling the finances and leasing while he was the business developer for the growing enterprise.
Don Owens ultimately went blind from his eye disorders, saying to his daughter that “blindness is a game changer.” She absolutely took that to heart. And, during that difficult time for both her and her father— dealing with his multiple health issues—she was also confronted with her own newly-diagnosed glaucoma.
The timing couldn’t have been worse, as she had begun, on her father’s behalf, to completely take over the successful family business while also caring for his medical needs.
As Owens dealt with many family and business issues each day, her interest in finding out everything she could about glaucoma was piqued. When she says she “did a bit of research on glaucoma,” she’s not kidding. She knew too well that glaucoma can be silent, even “insidious,” as she says. Her frustration with the lack of information on her particular type of glaucoma—normal tension glaucoma—led her to visit top ophthalmology institutions throughout the United States.
She recounts with a smile that she was seeking to put “lots of good heads together” to find out more about normal tension glaucoma as well as her particular diagnosis. “Having gone through what I did with my father as his caregiver, I knew what I had to do,” she says. Her tenacity was also informed by her father’s words to “do whatever you can, be assertive and go wherever you need to go for the very best eye care.” That she did with her typical thoroughness.
After seeing top specialists in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, Owens ended up back in Georgia, at Emory Eye Center. She had visited Emory Eye Center many times with her father prior to her own diagnosis. She asked around. She found an ophthalmologist specializing in glaucoma and wanted to be proactive about treatment. “I ended up deciding on Dr. Costarides because he was quite accomplished, and I thought we would be compatible,” she says.
Costarides alerted her to the fact that Eye Center researcher Eldon Geisert holds a particular interest in the genetics of glaucoma. And, since her family had a history of the disease, she thought that she and her relatives might be of help. Geisert’s research studies the genetic networks associated with the risk of developing glaucoma, and new findings may lead to enabling early detection, and later, to more effective treatments. He holds a $1.5 million NEI grant. Joining him is physician and geneticist Suma Shankar, who holds a primary appointment in Human Genetics at Emory as well as an assistant professorship at the Emory Eye Center in pediatric ophthalmology and Vitreoretinal Surgery & Diseases (Retina).
Today, she talks fondly of Costarides who began treating her in 2010. “I’ve learned a lot along the way,” says Owens. “Dr. Costarides has been very patient with me—I ask a lot of questions,” she says smiling.
Owens also knows that help can come from unlikely places. She animatedly relays that a treatment for Marfan’s Syndrome came about when a lone mother sought to get treatment for her child. At that point, Marfan’s had no known treatment, but one mother’s tenacity led to an off-label treatment still used today.
Owens credits her late father with being her greatest mentor. “He often said ‘Do whatever you want to do!’” she fondly recounts. Giving back to the important research into glaucoma is her passion today. “I had often thought if I find the place that I feel has the potential to make a difference in glaucoma research and can help a lot of people, I’ll do something significant.”
Her generosity has formed the Owens Family Discovery Fund to fund work of the Emory Eye Center’s research team. “My hope is that my family’s gift will help place the Emory Eye Center—with top clinicians like Costarides and the research possibilities offered by Geisert and Shankar—at the forefront in developing innovative new treatments for this stealthy, persistent disease that affects millions of people,” she says.
I lived through the impact of watching a loved one go blind, and I’m especially grateful to be able to see every morning when I wake up.”
“Certainly, blindness is a game changer,” as Don Owens said to his daughter, but so may be the future of glaucoma research, thanks to the keen interest and generosity of Debra Owens.