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Special lenses help restore physician’s fading vision

By Jessica Pasley
February 2013

Camiron Pfennig shows the difference in size between a scleral lens, left, and a standard  contact lens. Photo by Steve Green.

Camiron Pfennig shows the difference in size between a scleral lens, left, and a standard contact lens. Photo by Steve Green.

Camiron Pfennig, M.D., has spent the last five years living out her dream as an Emergency Department physician and director of Undergraduate Medical Education at Vanderbilt.

Her career was in peril because of her rapidly fading eyesight. When Pfennig was 15, she was diagnosed with keratoconus, a thinning disorder of the cornea that causes distortion and reduced vision. The corneal abnormality can affect simple tasks like driving, watching TV and reading. For Pfennig, the loss of independence was making her life miserable.

In the early stages of the disease, vision problems are often corrected with glasses or soft contact lenses. As it progresses, patients are often moved into rigid, gas-permeable lenses. Advanced keratoconus can require corneal transplantation.

“It was getting to the point where my eyes were ruining my life,” said Pfennig. “I was trying to decide whether I should go ahead with the transplant or try something else. I was running out of options.”

Pfennig was near giving up when she walked into Jeffrey Sonsino’s office at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute. Sonsino, O.D., assistant professor of Ophthalmology, is the director of the Scleral Lens Clinic, the only dedicated scleral lens practice in the region. Scleral lenses are custom-made, large-diameter, rigid gas-permeable lenses that are twice the size of a standard rigid gas-permeable lens. The larger-sized lenses rest on the white of the eye, or sclera, unlike standard lenses that rest on the cornea.

Scleral lenses form a chamber on top of the cornea filled with saline solution, constantly bathing the cornea in fluid. It acts as a liquid bandage to help treat dry or diseased corneas and masks irregularities of the cornea in an effort to improve vision.

It also protects the cornea from exposure to air and the rubbing effects of blinking. While the fluid acts like a cushion, it also provides oxygen to the cornea.

Just days after her final lens adjustment, Pfennig competed in an Ironman competition — one of her lifelong goals.

“During the entire 14 hours of the race I was thanking God for these scleral lenses,” she said. “It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done. I even finished the race well under my goal time.”

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