WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — The first time Doug Oliver realized just how devastatingly fast his macular degeneration had progressed was during a family road trip to New Hampshire 10 years ago.
“I almost hit two pedestrians in a crosswalk,” recalled Oliver, 54. “I basically denied that I did not see them, but I knew that I hadn’t seen them.”
A police officer witnessed the near miss, handed the driver a $500 fine and said, “Mr. Oliver, you have a serious vision problem and you need to go see your doctor now.”
Oliver agreed and was forced to forfeit his driver’s license and career as an IT specialist and social policy consultant. The man once known for his boundless vigor was now stymied professionally and relying on a monthly disability check to get by.
“I languished mentally and physically for two years,” Oliver remembered.
Oliver received his degenerative diagnosis 20 years ago, but had been reassured by doctors that his vision would hold out until his 60th birthday.
That didn’t happen.
Tests revealed that his eyesight was all but gone: 20/2000 in the left eye, 20/400 in the right.
Facing a new life with severely limited sight, Oliver set about finding a cure after being told by a doctor that his only hope was finding and participating in an experimental clinical trial down the road.
The newly blind man wasn’t a medical expert. He didn’t have connections or a bottomless bank account. But he was tenacious in pursuing leads found on message boards and digital articles.
Finally, in 2015, Oliver reached out to a surgeon named Dr. Jeffrey Weiss using stem cells to experimentally treat macular degeneration in Florida.
That one call changed his life forever.
Oliver flew to Florida where a team of doctors extracted marrow from his hip bone, spun them in an FDA-approved centrifuge and then injected the remaining stem cells into his eyes.
Within two days, the left eye improved to 20/40 and his right eye to 20/30.
Oliver still grins as he pictures the plane ride home from Florida. “I could see the boats and the little wake lines that you see from 30,000 feet. I acted like a 6-year-old and loved it,” he beamed.
Capitol Hill crusade
Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., hopes to multiply Oliver’s recovery millions of times over.
Alexander invited Oliver, his home state constituent, to Washington for a week during the month of June to share his story with colleagues and opinion-makers.
The two men joined former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., at the Bipartisan Policy Center to push the 21st Century Cures Act, a package of 19 bills to fund and encourage high risk, high reward clinical trials like the one Oliver underwent.
If the Cures Act passes, Alexander predicts the real world implications could be huge over the next 10 years.
The medical community could create “a Zika vaccine, an artificial pancreas; they’d rebuild hearts so they won’t have to be transplanted, [and] provide non-addictive pain medicine to avoid the opioids epidemic,” Alexander said.
To add a human face to costly legislation, Alexander and his staff escorted Oliver around the Capitol to meetings with top-ranking Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., pursuing buy-in from the chamber’s most influential members.
With a similar $8.8 billion bill already approved by the House, Alexander sees the odds of Senate passage as high but acknowledges the final price tag for items like new National Institutes of Health funding, which must be offset elsewhere, is an obstacle.
“We should be able to get this done,” Alexander said, but admitted the process of melding 19 pieces of legislation gets “complicated when you’re dealing with so many different interests.”
Alexander is still coy about the exact funding level he’s trying to reach, but is adamant that progress is being made in reaching a suitable number that would gain the support of fellow senators.
“If you’ve got the House, the Senate, and the president all wanting something to happen,” declared Alexander, “there’s no reason it shouldn’t.”
Hope for millions
Back in Tennessee, Doug Oliver’s world has brightened immensely.
He wrote to the Social Security Administration requesting that his status be reversed, allowing him to re-enter the workforce and stop receiving monthly disability checks.
And Oliver recently ran an errand of monumental personal importance.
“I went back to the DMV and got my license in Tennessee in December,” he said. “It’s changed my life.”
Of his two-decade battle for a cure, the Tennessean insists, “I was never desperate, I was determined.”
Today, Oliver is absolutely determined to make breakthrough treatments available to others in the dire position he occupied just one short year ago.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales