Patient Experience
Betty Willis, center, surrounded by daughters Glenda Jett and Janet Luby and husband Glen Willis
Surgeon Restores Much More Than Eyesight
Sitting in their living room, Betty and Glen Willis joke as they share stories about their 66 years of marriage and raising three daughters. Themes of faith, togetherness and happy memories are woven throughout the close-knit family’s narratives, so much so that one might not guess that Betty experienced a life-altering health crisis nearly 60 years ago.
Standing up after working in her Houston garden one day in 1965, the young mother suddenly felt as if she were looking through Venetian blinds. Thus began a decades-long optical-health journey with recurrent setbacks that would test the most fortitudinous of families — punctuated by two remarkable turning points that would take place at Houston Methodist.
The Willis family’s first encounter with the institution began with retinal surgeon Dr. Alice R. McPherson in the 1960s. The pioneering ophthalmologist eventually recommended laser surgery for Betty’s retinas, which had deteriorated to the point of hemorrhaging. Unusual for the time, the vitreoretinal surgery had to be performed within 48 hours of stoppage of the bleeding. One snowy morning in January of 1970, the family made their way to Houston from their then home of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The worst seemed to be behind them as Betty subsequently enjoyed a decade of stable vision. But once again, her eyesight began to decline, and she underwent several procedures over the next 20 years — averaging one every five years. “She never, ever complained,” youngest daughter Beth Alexander recalls.
In August 2022, Betty had a fall that resulted in a complete loss of the little vision she had left. Weary, the family was resigned to the likelihood of no remaining clinical interventions. As a last-ditch effort, they visited the Houston Methodist Blanton Eye Institute in February 2023. “I was just praying for any help, no matter how small,” remembers Glen.
They met with Dr. Garvin H. Davis, a retina specialist who had trained as a fellow under Dr. McPherson 20 years prior and who conducted tests and discovered — to Betty’s delight — that her retina was stable. However, the artificial lens in her eye was displaced. He then introduced her to his partner, Dr. Rahul Pandit, an ocular surgeon and the medical director of the ophthalmology operating room at the Blanton Institute.
The family was stunned as Dr. Pandit described a path forward for Betty, instilling confidence and conveying compassion they remembered from their experience at Houston Methodist 50 years earlier. Pandit’s goal was simple — reposition Betty’s dislocated ocular lens. The plan and techniques involved were far more complex, entailing mastery shared by a relatively small community of ocular surgeons.
Surgery on the front (anterior) region of the eye, known as advanced anterior segment surgery, is especially challenging because of the highly individualized structural variability of the eye. Put simply, Dr. Pandit built “suspenders” to hold Betty’s lens in place and made some adjustments to her pupil. After her surgery, Betty was thrilled and surprised by the improvement in her vision, which progressed virtually every day.
The surgery restored much more than Betty’s eyesight — it restored the couple’s independence and, in so many ways, the family’s optimism. “When we walked in, she couldn’t see a hand in front of her; now she can read at 20/100,” points out daughter Glenda Jett.
Remarkably, Betty never lost hope. A tenaciously independent woman, she values her experience with the hospital’s holistic approach to compassionate care. To the family, the result is nothing short of a miracle — with a good dose of medical innovation and humanity. “It was like coming home,” concludes daughter Janet Luby. “It’s been such a blessing in every way for us to come back to Houston Methodist.”