Robert and Joell Brightfelt


For much of his life, Robert Brightfelt, of Lake Forest, Illinois, has dealt with some form of vision loss. A routine visit to his optometrist, though, brought him some frustrating news.

“My local eye doctor told me that I had an issue related to my cornea, but he also said I didn’t qualify for a tissue transplant,” says Robert, a University of Nebraska graduate who worked nearly 30 years for DuPont. “I was too young, and the condition wasn’t serious enough.”

As the years passed and Robert’s eyesight continued to diminish, he struggled to find a solution. After talking with his neighbor, Jim Whiteley (1962 B.S.M.E., 1964 M.S.), Robert decided to join him for an eye appointment at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “I ended up meeting with Dr. Mark Greiner and his team,” says Robert. “They looked me over, diagnosed my vision problem, and told me they could fix it.”

Robert has Fuchs’ dystrophy, an eye disease in which cells lining the inner surface of the cornea slowly start to die off. Because of Robert’s significant vision loss—his eyesight had slipped to 20/700—he needed two cornea transplants. Four months and two cornea transplants later, Robert’s vision has been completely restored.

“It’s been a life-changing experience,” says Robert, who, prior to the surgeries, struggled to watch TV or enjoy sports such as golf. “When your eyesight slowly gets worse, you forget what sight looks like. Now it’s nearly perfect—20/20 in the left eye and 20/25 in the right eye.

“Throughout my entire experience at Iowa, I’ve found that Dr. Greiner is not only a good surgeon, but the entire department—from top to bottom—is a well-run operation. Medical environments aren’t always well-run machines, but it’s a uniquely different experience at Iowa.”

Because of the vision-saving care he received from UI Hospitals and Clinics, Robert and his wife, Joell, have made a $1 million gift to establish the Robert and Joell Brightfelt Professorship in Cornea. The Brightfelts’ professorship will support a faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences who is focused on cornea research, education, clinical care, and surgery.

“I believe in investing in quality people—individuals who are good at getting things done,” says Robert. “As I saw Dr. Greiner work and learned more about the things they might be able to accomplish in the future, I knew this was a perfect match for what my wife and I wanted to support. Dr. Greiner and his team are doing great things at Iowa, and I’m very grateful for, and appreciative of, how Iowa has helped me.”

Robert continues to entrust Iowa with his medical care—whether it’s for vision checkups or to handle a more recent issue with his lungs. “The people who handle lung-related issues, including Dr. Alicia Gerke, are as good as the eye staff,” says Robert. “My wife and I are big supporters of Iowa and the medical care it provides.”

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Explore the May 2018 edition of the Iowa Alumni Magazine.