When Karen Howlett counts her blessings, she starts with the three most dear: her daughter, her son and her vision. She wouldn’t have any of them, she said, without UAMS.
Diagnosed with Marfan’s syndrome at age 5, Howlett’s parents knew she faced a life of challenges. Marfan’s syndrome is a genetic condition that affects the body’s connective tissue and can cause multiple medical conditions, including dislocated lenses and complications in pregnancy.
Although her vision began to deteriorate at an early age, Howlett developed a love of horseback riding, competing in both barrel racing and pole bending events. “I knocked down a lot of poles because of my vision problems,” she said.
As an adult, Howlett’s vision continued to decline, resulting in her sometimes resorting to wearing contact lenses and glasses at the same time. “Because my vision was so poor, I was afraid to stay alone overnight. I eventually had to stop driving, which was really difficult for a 34-year-old to accept,” she said.
At the same time Howlett was struggling with her vision, she was advised not to have children due to possible heart-related complications from Marfan’s. When Howlett became unexpectedly pregnant in 2000, she and her husband, Lew, sought the care of Dr. Paul Wendel, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist in the UAMS high-risk pregnancy program. UAMS is home to the only board-certified maternal-fetal specialists in Arkansas.
Under Wendel’s care, Howlett successfully delivered her daughter, Jessica, who was followed two years later by the planned pregnancy of her brother, Justin.
“Dr. Wendel believed in me and made sure I received the best possible care during my pregnancies. My children were my first two blessings,” Howlett said.
Howlett’s third blessing came in the form of a visit to Dr. Nicola Kim at the UAMS Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute. Under the care of UAMS ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Harper since the early 1990s, Howlett was told in late 2006 that her eyes had reached the point that she eligible for a surgical procedure that could potentially improve her vision. Kim performed three procedures on Howlett — a laser treatment on her left eye and a lens implementation in both eyes — bringing her vision to a near perfect 20/25.
“The first time I looked at my children after my surgery, my heart melted. It was like seeing them for the first time,” she said. “I could see everything, even the specks of color in their eyes. A whole new world was opened up for me.”