Two days before Christmas, five-year-old Harlan’s parents were told he might have eye cancer

September 19, 2023

Noticing something off with her son’s right eye, Krissy took him to see an optometrist and was told he might have retinoblastoma. She spent the next week trying to get answers, which ultimately saved his vision. 

In the days leading up to Christmas 2021 while visiting family in Oklahoma, Harlan’s mom, Krissy, noticed that his right eye wasn’t tracking correctly. Given this had been going on for a couple weeks, she decided to book an appointment with Dr. Faith Schneider.

At the time, Harlan was five years old, so Dr. Schneider assumed he had too much far-sightedness and would need glasses. While performing a comprehensive eye exam, she noticed his macula (part of the retina) had been compromised and things might actually be much worse. She recommended Krissy take Harlan to the children’s hospital emergency room, 1.5 hours away, to check for retinoblastoma, the most common eye cancer in children. If retinoblastoma was ruled out, then she recommended he get examined for Coats’ disease, which is a rare disease caused by a problem with the arteries and veins inside the eye that provide blood and oxygen to the retina.

“It’s the worst part of our job – examining someone’s eye and seeing a potential tumor,” Dr. Schneider said. “But when it’s a five-year-old, right before Christmas, your heart really breaks for the family as it impacts everyone. It’s a day they’ll never forget, I’m sure.”

“It’s the worst part of our job—examining someone’s eye and seeing a potential tumor … It’s a day they’ll never forget, I’m sure.”

While they were able to get Harlan in to see a physician at the ER that night, he would need to come back after Christmas to see a retina specialist to confirm his diagnosis. Harlan’s family spent Christmas not knowing whether he had eye cancer or not. Unfortunately, that appointment days later also didn’t provide clarity and he was sent to the University of Iowa for further testing.

Finally, on December 30 th, they received the results of Harlan’s MRI, which came back negative for retinoblastoma, meaning he had Coats’ disease and could now begin proper treatment. Coats’ disease is non-life threatening, but Harlan will never have depth perception between his two eyes or experience the world around him with depth perception. Thankfully, he was diagnosed at stage two (out of five) – had his mom waited to take him to an optometrist, he could’ve progressed to stage three, which can result in retinal detachment.

📺 Watch Harlan's story

“Harlan’s eyes starting to turn out is a common symptom of Coats’ disease. Other signs include an abnormal white light reflection from the pupil, decreased vision and in severe cases, pain. Getting an early diagnosis is critical to preventing disease progression and maintaining as much vision as possible – if not treated early and properly, it can lead to blindness.” Dr. Schneider explained.

"Getting an early diagnosis is critical to preventing disease progression and maintaining as much vision as possible – if not treated early and properly, it can lead to blindness.”

Since receiving his diagnosis, Harlan has gone through multiple surgeries on his right eye. Two years later, he continues to receive follow-up care in Iowa City, where he was traveling every six weeks until February 2023.

Now six-years-old, Harlan loves baseball and plays for a local coach pitch baseball team. There are concerns that he could get injured in his left eye, so Harlan has been prescribed glasses to wear all the time to protect his left eye.   

If you notice anything unusual in your child’s eyes, it’s imperative you take them to see a doctor of optometry right away.    

Faith Schneider, O.D.

Faith Schneider, O.D.

Dr. Faith Schneider obtained her Doctorate of Optometry from the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Optometry in 2012. After optometry school, Dr. Schneider completed a one-year residency program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Optometry, specializing in pediatrics/vision therapy/binocular vision disorders/learning-related vision disorders. She is a member of the American Optometry Association, College of Optometrists in Vision Development, a Fellow in the American Academy of Optometry, and President-Elect for the Nebraska Optometry Association. She was awarded the NOA's Young Optometrist of the Year in 2021. She enjoys working with patients of all ages and is passionate about helping children with vision processing disorders that make learning a challenge. When she isn’t working, she spends time with her husband and their five children.

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