When Dr. Barry Leonard, an influential and widely respected optometrist based in Panorama City, Calif., was first in medical school, he says no one wanted to partner with him because they couldn’t figure out his eyes.
“In optometry school we practiced on each other, we paired up with another student. And what we found was that nobody wanted to work on me because it was too difficult,” he says.
Luckily, a professor of his did know what was wrong with his eyes. Leonard had keratoconus, a rare condition in which a cone-shaped cornea causes blurred vision as well as sensitivity to light and glare.
From then on, Leonard says, this professor took him under his wing as a mentee, and Leonard went on to specialize his optometry practice in keratoconus.
The basics of keratoconus
The condition was thought to be very rare, affecting perhaps one in 2,000 people. However, recent research, Leonard says, suggests keratoconus might be as common as one in 400. The doctor has always been passionate about helping others to see better and says understanding this particular condition is even more important knowing now that it is far more common than was once previously thought.
The hallmarks of keratoconus include blurry and distorted vision, often with halos and glare. Leonard says many patients complain of ghosting and streaks of light in their vision.
Because keratoconus is a progressive condition, if left untreated it can cause irreparable damage to a person’s eyesight. “The cornea could eventually fail and become scarred,” Leonard says, causing loss of vision.
Leonard stresses that loss of vision has huge impacts on a person’s quality of life, in ways many might not realize. “You’re unable to drive, maybe unable to work, you’re uncomfortable,” he says, adding in some cases, loss of vision can contribute to severe depression and poor mental health.
Leonard encourages patients to regularly see an optometrist for any eye condition. “The number one cause of blindness in the world is people just don’t have a pair of glasses.”
A compassionate approach
Leonard’s career was motivated by a commitment to improve people’s quality of life and help them to see. He also leads a teaching clinic, where he instructs the interns to pay attention to the work they’re doing and to learn the skills, but most importantly to look at each patient individually and with compassion.
“I tell them to look at the person and to watch that person. See what they need and what they want and how we can help them,” he explains.
While it is important for optometrists to be able to handle more common eye problems and everyday issues, Leonard stresses the need for specialization in optometry, no matter what the discipline. He loves teaching and practicing his specialty. And it all started with his own diagnosis in optometry school.
“And that’s when I started changing other people’s lives,” he says. “I’ll never forget those first patients that I had.”