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The Department of Ophthalmology salutes Dr. Ghazala O'Keefe

The longtime Emory Eye Center physician and professor recognized on National Doctor's Day

The Emory Eye Center is excited to announce that Dr. Ghazala O'Keefe was singled out for special recognition by her peers on March 30, National Doctor's Day.

O'Keefe is one of more than 100 physicians across the School of Medicine who were selected for the honor, which recognizes exemplary dedication to improving patient health and well-being through direct care, research, and inspirational education of future providers. The individual winners were chosen from among hundreds of nominations that were submitted to the SOM Recognition Committee this year.

Colleagues called out O'Keefe for the knowledge, energy, and generosity she brings to her many roles - as a clinician, a mentor, and a thought leader.

She is an outstanding clinician who receives high praise from patients for her empathic care, said Ophthalmology Department Chair Allen Beck.

She is an excellent teacher and mentor and is a strong leader for her section.

Among her many accomplishments is the recently concluded Southeast Vitreoretinal (SEVR) Seminar -- a conference that brought dozens of retina specialists to Atlanta to analyze patient care and discuss new clinical approaches. O'Keefe's co-organizer on that conference, Dr. Baker Hubbard, heaped praise on his longtime colleague:

Dr. O'Keefe is an incredibly valuable resource for her patients and her colleagues at the Eye Center, where she leads our medical retina and uveitis program. I get to work closely with her on some of the most complex cases in Georgia, and her approach is impressive. I’ve seen her methodically work to develop the right diagnosis and treatment plan. She works closely with infectious disease specialists and rheumatologists to coordinate care of very complex patients. We are extremely fortunate to have such an astute and dedicated clinician at Emory.

In his written remarks, Vikas P. Sukhatme, MD, the Dean of Emory Medical School, commended all of the 2022 honorees:

Your colleagues witness the compassion you give to patients, and also notice those of you who extend compassion to yourselves and prioritize your own wellness--a critically important practice, perhaps now more than ever, he wrote. It is a pleasure and an honor to work with each one of you.

National Doctor's Day was first celebrated in 1942 - the date Dr. Crawford W. Long administered the first ether anesthetic for surgery in Jefferson, Georgia. Eight decades later, it remains an opportunity to celebrate the clinical providers, mentors, teachers and researchers that make Emory Healthcare system a valuable health resource.



From Ukraine to Atlanta: Finding a way home

An Emory Eye Center staffer shares her experience helping her aunt escape the chaos in their homeland

Natalia Lendel holding a sign welcoming her to the United States

Editor's note: The Emory Eye Center staffer in this story was happy to share her experience, but asked us to omit her last name for privacy reasons. The photo, above, is of Natalia Lendel, when she arrived in Atlanta after fleeing the chaos that has overtaken her native Ukraine.



Screaming sirens. Smoldering buildings. Soot-covered children.

Nightly images of Ukraine's destruction have stunned many Americans into an awestruck silence. Yulia hasn't had that luxury. When the airspace over her native country was shutdown on February 23, her life went into overdrive.

By day, she kept a laser focus on her newly acquired job, as an ophthalmological assistant at the Emory Eye Center. But that left another 16 hours for Yulia to focus on the other side of the world, where her aunt, Natalia Lendel, was trapped in the Ukraine.

Brokering the journey to freedom


My aunt already had a visa and a green card, and she was ready to fly to the United States when they shut down the airspace, said Yulia, in the flawless English she has learned since emigrating to the United States at the age of 9.

Of course, I was crying at first because it made me so mad that I'd waited all of my life to have her in this country. But I couldn't let that stop me.

What did she know about ferreting refugees out of harm's way? Nothing. But what makes Yulia a great employee at Emory is also what made her Natalia's best source for practical and emotional support. She doesn't give up.

If I have a goal in mind, I make a plan and I work hard. I am very persistent,she says. I just started calling everyone, anyone in Atlanta that had any connection to the Ukranian community. I reached out to the U.S. Embassy, the Ukraine-Poland border control.

The responses from the Atlanta Ukrainian community were swift and many. Every day, she received multiple emails from strangers - Ukrainian emigres - who offered advice, referrals, and encouragement. One even offered to give Natalia English lessons when she finally made it stateside. The Polish Border advised her to direct her aunt to the nearest border, where, they assured her, Natalia would be allowed to cross.

Yulia quickly created an impromptu central command post from her personal smartphone. Going forward, all her family's communications to Natalia ran through that phone -to keep the message clear, and to save valuable battery life on her aunt's end.

I have an app that tells me if someone is online. I checked that app a lot, just to see if my aunt was online. Because if she was online, I knew she was probably okay, Yulia said.

And when I spoke with her, I tried to give her words of encouragement because I knew what she was seeing. No food, very little water, and so many people trying to leave.

Day after day, Yulia forged solutions to problems that defied her own lived experience as an American citizen. She told her aunt to take pictures of all her important documents and text them to Yulia's phone for safekeeping.

In case they took her phone and told her she did not have documents to proceed. I could produce them for her, she said.

And in case they took her phone, I told her to write down all of our cellphone numbers on separate strips of paper and to put them in her bra for safekeeping.

Yulia's advice was well-warranted. What should have been a six-hour car ride to the Polish border turned into a three-day odyssey. All of the trains were quickly canceled, so Natalia's journey started outside a bus station, where she waited six hours in the bitter cold before being told that there were no more buses going to Poland.

So I told her to go to another station near there, and she was able to get the last ticket to Poland. The very last ticket. I was happy, but I told her You are not out of the woods, yet. You still need to get there, and it is dangerous. Drivers are risking their lives because, if they are young enough, they are expected to fight. Find a driver who is over 60.

A war without guns


Natalia Lendel with students from her school

In this photo: Natalia Lendel, right, is seen with her students celebrating the Christmas Holiday.


Natalia Lendel worked for 21 years as a schoolteacher before the Russian invasion of 2022. The roots she had in her hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk were deeply woven into a fabric of friends and colleagues that made life in post-Soviet Ukraine relatively peaceful. She had always wanted to come to the United State, but not under these circumstances.

One day, I was living my life, happy, with friends that I see every day. And the next, it is all gone,she said during a recent video call, using her niece as a translator

And every day, now, I am calling friends who are still there, from morning til night, and there are so many tears, such sadness. They are constantly running to the basement because the sirens, the bombs.

Natalia's eyes well-up with pent-up fear and exhaustion when she talks about the three days she spent trying to get to Poland. Though she traveled alone, the others on the bus became like family to her - bolstering each other's spirits as the roads became gridlocked and the threat of being apprehended was only too real.

Some were just too tired, too frightened, so they decided to leave the bus, to go back on foot. It was too dangerous to travel on the roads, so they went through the woods, alone, with nothing, in the cold. It was so sad,she said.

There were also moments that gave her hope.

They told us there was a lady by the border who was giving out food, for free. These are rural people who took it upon themselves to help us. We were the happiest people in the world, the happiest, because she gave us hot soup and potatoes. Soup and potatoes! And when she gave us tea, there were tears because we were so grateful.

But the panic-ridden crowds left her with many more images that will haunt her forever: an exhausted mother collapsing to her death in front of her daughter; an infant being passed through a hole in the border fence ahead of its mother; and, everywhere, frantic screams and wailing from children who just wanted to lay their heads down and rest.

People had walked so far, so long. And by the time they reached the border, there were so many. People who had nothing. Pushing. Shoving. It was a war without guns, without fighting,she said.

When we passed through to the Polish side, it was like a fairy tale. The babies got diapers. They gave us all sandwiches. The Polish people were so very kind.

From Poland, Natalia caught a commercial flight to the United States. Arranged, of course, by Yulia.

The Ukrainian people do not hate the Russian people


When Natalia Lendel stepped off the plane in Atlanta a little over a week ago, she brought a huge smile for her adopted homeland - and a fistful of necessary documents. That was it. There was no carry-on luggage. Not even a change of clothes.

Yulia recalls their first conversation on American soil.

She wanted to know when she could get a job, when she could work, she says.

She wanted to make herself useful.

It's a trait Natalia shares with her niece.

Throughout all of this, I have made sure that I have been on time and completely ready for work, says Yulia. I have not missed work, not even once. I am grateful for the opportunity to build my career at Emory.

And while the world watches the political conflict unfold, both women want you to know their story is not a political one. It is their lives.

The Ukrainian people do not harbor ill will toward the Russian people. This war wants to divide us - to pit brother against brother - but the Ukrainian people and the Russian people are more alike than not, Yulia explains.

It's a mistake to blame the Russian grandmother who owns the corner store in your neighborhood. She is not to blame. I have friends who are Russian. I have cousins, who are half-Russian, half-Ukrainian. Some of them, now, are being asked which side they are on. That is wrong. The Ukrainian people do not hate the Russian people.



Vision2020 Link USA grant will support Global Ophthalmology in Ethiopia

Three-year, $90,00 grant recently awarded to EEC outreach program

patients and EEC physician in Ethiopia


The Emory Eye Center's Global Ophthalmology program (GO-E) has recently received an important boost in its efforts to expand access to both vision health and to ophthalmological training in Ethiopia.

A three-year, $90,000 grant, from Vision2020 LINK USA, will allow GO-E to continue training ophthalmology residents from Ethiopia's Addis Ababa University (AAU) while also bolstering much-needed screenings for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and diabetic retinopathy (DR).

“The idea is to improve our outreach to underserved populations in Ethiopia while, at the same time, increasing the subspecialty expertise of the locally-trained ophthalmologists, explained GO-E's co-director, Jacquelyn O'Banion, MD.

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to retreat, we are looking forward to a more robust exchange of physicians between our two countries.

Established first in the U.K., the Vision2020 LINKs program connects universities in low-income countries with those in high-income countries to support the development of high quality care. Within the AAU-Emory LINKs partnership, GO-E will focus on developing national diabetic retinopathy and retinopathy of prematurity programs. The first step towards this goal will be the completion of a needs assessment. This will allow organizers to fully understand where the deficits exist, and what measures are needed to develop robust programs in the future - new technology and equipment, community advocacy, or training of subspecialists.

The Vision2020 LINK USA partnership is one of several that fulfills the mission of GO-E, O'Banion pointed out.

Across the world, there are so many instances where treatable eye conditions deteriorate into blindness - sometimes because there simply isn't an ophthalmologist with the proper training to deliver it, she said. When GO-E is able to train our colleagues from low-resourced countries like Ethiopia, we can stave off this trend, now, and in the future.


Grossniklaus Research Group publishes uveal melanoma findings

Early detection of metastatic UM linked to liver


Research coming from Emory Eye Center's Hans Grossniklaus's group is opening a promising new avenue for detecting early-stage metastatic uveal melanoma in the liver.

The group's findings, Non-invasive Detection and Complementary Diagnostic of Liver Metastases via Chemokine Receptor 4 Imaging appeared in the February 10 edition of the journal Cancer Gene Therapy.

Their identification of a biomarker for liver metastases came out of the team's work with uveal melanoma (UM), an ophthalmic cancer that almost exclusively metastasizes in the liver. Researchers in this study observed elevated levels of the chemokine receptor 4 (CXCR4) in both the liver metastases from their UM patients, and in the liver metastases of UM murine models. This led them to use a CXCR4-specific MRI contrast agent to detect small liver metastases in a mouse model. The relative simplicity of this approach may eventually offer patients a valuable option for detection and treatment.

Noninvasive detection of these early-stage liver metastases from different sources has always been a critical medical need, said Grossniklaus.

The liver is a common site of metastases for different types of primary malignancies - not just in uveal melanoma, but in ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, and colon cancer. The lack of both molecular biomarkers and sensitive imaging methodology made the timely detection of liver cancer challenging.

The use of the CXCR4-specific MRI imaging contrast agent enabled early detection of small liver metastases transiting from a dormant status to an activated status in multiple metastatic murine models.

This contrast agent was developed by our colleague at Georgia State University, Jenny Yang PhD, said Grossinklaus. She's a co-senior author of the paper, and we work closely with her to help develop these contrast agents.

The paper's authors: Hua Yang, Shanshan Tan, Jingjuan Qiao, Yiting Xu , Zongxiang Gui, Yuguang Meng , Bin Dong, Guangda Peng, Oluwatosin Y. Ibhagui , Weiping Qian, Jimmy Lu , Zezhong Li, Guimin Wang, Jinping Lai , Lily Yang, Hans Grossniklaus, and Jenny J. Yang.


Dobbs Foundation grant will boost Emory Eye Center outreach to underserved


A two-year grant from the R. Howard Dobbs Jr. Foundation will focus on closing the health care access gap that prevents un- and underinsured Georgians from getting follow-up vision care.

Announcement of the $180,000 grant was made January 26, and applauded by Georgia Vision 2020, a statewide coalition of providers and advocates that includes Emory Eye Center and our outreach program, Global Ophthalmology (GO-Emory).

The Dobbs Foundation funds will allow us to strengthen the referral network of providers who can give patients direct access to follow-up medical care once a vision problem has been detected, said Emory Eye Center ophthalmologist (and GO-E director) Jacquelyn O'Banion, MD, MSc.

It is both illogical and heart-breaking when we detect a vision problem at a screening clinic but know that the patient cannot access the follow-up care prescribed.

Among other things, the Dobbs grant will allow three GV2020 providers - the Emory Eye Center, the Georgia Lions Lighthouse, and Prevent Blindness Georgia - to make more mobile medical clinics available to underserved communities.The grant will also further efforts to increase the number and the availability of vision care providers who can offer free or low-cost follow-up care.

Each year, GV2020 partners conduct as many as 600 vision screenings to under-served populations throughout the state. The screenings are free, and the screeners work with patients to make sure that prescribed follow-up medical care is pursued.

That's where the Global Vision Network comes in. The GVN maintains an online customer relations network that matches vision screening patients with appropriate follow-up care providers in their geographic area. The GVN algorithm identifies the patient's need for financial help and identifies local charities that can address it. Those who cannot be matched with a local provider are referred to one of the mobile clinics operated by a GV2020 partner.

The Global Vision Network has brought us a long way toward addressing the vision care gap, said O’Banion.

We still have a way to go. Patients get overwhelmed by the system, and do not take the next step. And there are not enough providers to meet the need. The infusion of support from the Dobbs Foundation will allow us to forge ahead, to hone this system so that it better serves more people.

In collaboration with Emory Goizueta Business School’s IMPACT program,s GVN is already working to put a dent in that statistic. Collaborators are seeking to develop business models that will attract more individual providers and private practices to the network. Under the auspices of the Dobbs grant, GVN also hopes to create an open network among the GV2020 partners -possibly expanding their reach into more high-need areas.

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Emory Eye Center to host 2022 Southeast Vitreoretinal Seminar in Atlanta

Ending a two-year hiatus, the Emory Eye Center will once again sponsor the Annual Southeast Vitreoretinal (SEVR) Seminar at the JW Marriott Hotel March 25-26, 2022.

As in previous years, the 34th Annual SEVR is expected to attract top retina specialists, uveitis specialists, retina fellows, ophthalmology residents, and medical students from throughout the southeast. Led by Emory faculty, Ghazala A. Datoo O'Keefe, MD and G. Baker Hubbard, III, MD. participants will dive into a wide range of topics, including retinal vascular disease, ocular tumors, uveitis, retinal degenerations, updates on the latest clinical trials, and management of complex vitreoretinal surgery.

Conference registration and special hotel rates are still open. Registered attendees may make a case presentation by submitting a financial disclosure form by February 28. Find out more or register now

The agenda for the two-day seminar features a mix of case presentations, clinical updates, and point-counterpoint discussions related to vitreoretinal surgery, medical retinal diseases, uveitis, and related topics. Participants will discuss recent innovations in vitreoretinal surgical techniques and review equipment utilized for addressing retinal detachment repair, macular hole treatment, epiretinal membrane removal, and foreign body removal.

The SEVR seminar is always really unique, in that it's a very collegial transfer of knowledge among highly accomplished researchers and physicians, said O'Keefe.

The cases we analyze are very challenging, so the discussions are lively and very involved.

Kicking off the event will be Amani Fawzi, MD, who will give the Paul Sternberg, Jr. lecture, OCT Angiography In Diabetic Retinopathy: Insights into the Pathophysiology, Pearls and Pitfalls on Friday morning. Dr. Fawzi is the Cyrus Tang and Lee Jampol Professor of Ophthalmology at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. Her research focuses on translational approaches to age-related macular degeneration and ischemic retinal diseases with a special focus on functional retinal imaging and image-guided interventions.

The event will also feature a talk by Russell W. Read, MD, PhD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Medicine. Dr. Read is the Max and Lorayne Cooper Professor for Ophthalmology and the residency training director of the Uveitis/Ocular Inflammatory Disease service. His talk, Drug Therapy for Uveitis will draw from his extensive clinical practice and research, which focus on uveitis and ocular inflammatory disease.

I'm delighted to host SEVR again, said Hubbard. This meeting has always provided a superb opportunity to connect with other retina specialists from around the region - colleagues who share in the care of our patients.

I am looking forward to hearing case presentations on difficult medical and surgical retina problems managed by our colleagues.

Several of Hubbard's Emory Eye Center colleagues will moderate discussions, including Jiong Yan, MD, Nieraj Jain, MD, Rachel Shah, MD, H. Ayesha Hossain, PhD, Joshua Barnett, MD, Blaine Cribbs, MD, and Andy Hendrick, MD.

The Emory University School of Medicine has designated the SEVR Seminar for a maximum of 8.75 AMA PRA Category 1 Credits. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity.

To ensure the safety of all, SEVR 2022 organizers ask that attendees wear masks, practice social distancing, and download the Clear App to track their status.


Two Emory Eye Center faculty tapped for 2021 Morgan Distinguished Lecture

As the Emory Eye Center closes out 2021, we are proud to announce that, for the first time in the University's history, two faculty (both from EEC!) were tapped to co-present the prestigious John F. Morgan Distinguished Faculty lecture. Nancy J. Newman, MD and Valérie Biousse, MD, shared the honor, one of the most coveted bestowed by the University.

Newman and Biousse's talk, The Eye as a Window to the Brain: From Candlelight to Artificial Intelligence gave a fascinating history of their joint interest in reintroducing the ocular fundus examination - currently an infrequently performed practice conducted by non-ophthalmic physicians - into an effective tool of mainstream medicine.

For more than 150 years, physicians have known that the appearance of the ocular fundus is a window into the neurologic and systemic health of human beings. However, the direct ophthalmoscope is poorly and rarely used in modern clinical care by non-eyecare professionals. Newman and Biousse's work has taken advantage of cutting-edge technological advances in digital cameras (capable of taking pictures of the back of the eye without pupillary dilation), and artificial intelligence deep learning systems that can interpret those photographs. As a result, they have been able to champion the importance of examining the ocular fundus without the attendant difficulty of using an ophthalmoscope.

Their work, recently published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, illustrates how vision- and life-threatening conditions such as papilledema (swelling of the optic nerves from elevated intracranial pressure) can be reliably detected through use of these technologies. Their work has benefited from rich collaborations with Emory's departments of Ophthalmology and Emergency Medicine, the Singapore Health team of scientists and engineers, and a world-wide consortium of neuro-ophthalmologists.

"Our work is ongoing," added Biousse. "We are confident that it will produce important publications in the near future and that it will have a direct impact on patient care as well."

A world-renowned lecturer and researcher, Valerie Biousse serves as a professor of ophthalmology and neurology at the Emory University School of Medicine, where she holds the Reunette Harris Chair of Ophthalmology. Her research interests include idiopathic intracranial hypertension, non-mydriatic fundus photography for the diagnosis of neuro ophthalmic disease, diagnostic errors and referral patterns in neuro-ophthalmology, and ocular manifestations of cerebrovascular diseases.

The director of Emory Eye Center's neuro-ophthalmology section, Nancy J. Newman is a professor of ophthalmology and neurology at the Emory University School of Medicine, where she holds the LeoDelle Jolley Chair. Her main research interests include disorders of the optic nerve and mitochondrial disorders.

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