TRACEY WHITNEY appeared to have it all: good health, loving family and friends and beauty – with a voice to match – that allowed her to light up stages across the world as a jazz soloist and backup singer for the likes of Ray Charles.Then she began to experience changes in her eyes that were painful and scary. One day, her young nephew looked at her and said: “Auntie Tracey’s eyes are so big, they’re touching her glasses,” she recalls.
Physicians diagnosedWhitney with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that is the most common form of hyperthyroidism – it also affected former first-lady Barbara Bush and the late comedianMarty Feldman – and a severe form of Graves’ ophthalmopathy, in which the eyeballs bulge out past their protective orbit as tissues and muscles behind the eyes swell and push them forward.Whitney’s vision, pain and disfigurement worsened so much that she stopped performing.
“In severe cases like Tracey’s, ophthalmopathy can be debilitating and life-changing,” says Robert Goldberg, M.D., chief of orbital and ophthalmic plastic surgery and co-director of the aesthetic reconstructive surgery service at the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute (JSEI). “The disease tends to improve over time with appropriate medical treatment, but patients with severe ophthalmopathy may need surgery to get them back to the function and appearance they had before the disease started,” he adds.
Clinicians and researchers at JSEI are credited with developing and refining many of the treatments for Graves’ ophthalmopathy, including endoscopic orbital decompression surgery, a highly complex procedure to enable the eyeballs to be pushed back into place, as well as eye-muscle and eyelid surgeries to improve eye function and reduce disfigurement. Additionally, Dr. Goldberg says patients come to JSEI to receive hyaluronic acid-gel-filler injections, which address both functional and cosmetic changes from the disease. Researchers are now investigating new biologic agents that may eliminate the need for surgery.
Whitney had five surgeries and several injections over the course of six years.Now she is back to doing the things she enjoysmost. She recorded aCD, sang at a local festival over the summer and plans to open her own jazz club. “The important thing about sharingmy story,” she says, “is so that other people aremade aware that they can get their eyes, their face and their lives back.”