Skip to main content
Family of four plays at the beach with coastline in background

An alert eye specialist saves an artist's sight

December 21, 2023 | UCI Health
Mary McKay Schaffer averted serious vision and other damage from a stroke thanks to quick action by her UCI Health eye specialist.

Today, Mary McKay Schaffer marvels that her eye specialist spotted symptoms during a routine eye exam that signaled she was having a stroke.

The way Mary McKay Schaffer sees it, her ophthalmologist not only saved her vision, she saved her life.

Schaffer arrived at the UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute in November 2020 for a routine visit with Dr. Sameh Mosaed. A few years earlier, the eye specialist had performed surgeries to treat cataracts in both of Schaffer’s eyes, as well as mild glaucoma. The procedures restored her vision and she no longer needed glasses. But she still went in several times a year for checkups.

An avid painter, Schaffer relies on her sight to choose and mix acrylic paints in search of the perfect colors to bring to life her richly textured portraits of musicians with their instruments, chefs in kitchens and women deep in contemplation.

“Painting is the most natural thing I have ever done,” Schaffer says. Although she always loved drawing and painting, she took a 40-year hiatus to work as a special education teacher, then as a booking agent for professional speakers.

Today, the 76-year-old Dana Point resident — who draws inspiration from her childhood in North Carolina, a decade of living in Hawaii and now her life in Southern California — is still able to paint thanks to Mosaed.

'Go to the ER right now'

During a visit to the eye institute in fall 2020 for routine tests, the doctor also checked Schaffer’s field of vision. She looked intensely at her patient and said calmly, “Go to the ER right now. You are having a stroke.”

Shocked at the idea she had any vision problems, Schaffer nonetheless had her husband drive her directly to an emergency department, where an MRI revealed she was having an acute ischemic stroke. It was affecting her right occipital lobe — the part of the brain responsible for vision, including spatial and color recognition so vital for her painting. She received immediate care.

At a follow-up visit with Mosaed, the patient recalled a strange moment weeks before the stroke. While walking with her husband around Dana Point Harbor, she hadn't recognizes a building she’d strolled past for years. The eye test that fateful day revealed that Schaffer was missing half the field of vision in each eye — a telltale symptom of a stroke.

“I had no visible signs of stroke or disabling characteristics or complaints,” she recalls. “But in her calm and professional manner, Dr. Mosaed told me to go straight to the ER. No drama. That’s right up there with the best advice I’ve ever had.”

Blood clot found

Schaffer stayed in the hospital two days for treatment to dissolve a blood clot in her brain that was causing the stroke. Her doctors were delighted to find she had no lasting effects to her speech or gait. Astonishingly, her eyesight also returned to 20/20 vision.

“This is extremely unusual to have reversal of vision loss in these types of cases,” says Mosaed. “It proves that she was treated before permanent damage was done to the brain. There is a very short window of time before the loss is permanent, typically within a few hours.”

Now during Schaffer's regular visits to the eye institute in Irvine, she enjoys telling the medical staff that Mosaed saved her life. She watches for the look of surprise to cross their faces before sharing the whole story. With each recounting, she reaffirms her gratitude and great fortune to have had an appointment the day she was having a stroke — and that her physician was Mosaed.

“In comparing her with any doctor I have seen, or any doctor who has ever provided me with surgery or advice, Dr. Mosaed ranks No. 1.”

Related Stories