Requiring infant eye test could save lives, stars say

By Aurelio Rojas
Bee Capitol Bureau
(Published April 26, 2000)

When her daughter Katya was born two years ago, actress Hunter Tylo was assured the infant was "a healthy, normal child."

Three months later, the star of the television soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" was shocked when her baby was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancer that attacks the retina, the most important part of the eye.

Katya's right eye was removed, and six tumors were lasered off her left eye -- a procedure that saved her life but not her eyesight. A simple, inexpensive dilation test could have spared her the trauma.

Tylo visited the Capitol on Tuesday with her husband, actor Michael Tylo, and producer-director Tim Zinnemann and his wife, Christine. Together with Jennifer Whitten of Sacramento, they offered personal and emotional testimonials in support of a bill, AB 2185, that would require every newborn in California to be screened for eye diseases.

"Every time I look at my beautiful little girl, with her fluffy blond hair, and I see the prosthetic eye she now wears, I'm reminded of the pain this little child has gone through in the first two years of her life," Tylo said. "I know I can't turn back the hands of time, but I can open up the possibility to save the eyesight and the lives of other children by supporting this effort for early detection."

Dr. A. Linn Murphree, director of the Retinoblastoma Center at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, said that although the disease is rare, striking about 70 newborns in California each year, 10 times as many infants are born with congenital cataracts, which can lead to blindness by the second month.

"So we're taking about one in about 700 children born in California having a treatable eye disease," said Murphree, who joined the other witnesses at a news conference before testifying before the Assembly Health Committee.

"The solution is here," Murphree said, holding up an eyedrop dispenser. "Just a single drop that we would add to what the pediatrician already does."

Murphree said the cost of dilating an infant's eye would be about 25 cents per child. A white glow in a dilated infant's eye is evidence of a tumor; a black glow could be a cataract.

"We're not asking the Legislature to change anything about how we practice medicine," Murphree said. "Just put one drop in and see what's there."

Murphree said California would become the first state in the nation to screen infants for eye diseases. It is standard care in England.

The bill's author, Assemblyman Martin Gallegos, said the measure's goals are simple.

"What we're trying to do is save children from potentially blinding eye diseases," said Gallegos, D-El Monte.

Zinnemann, whose credits include such films as "The Great White Hope" and "Carnal Knowledge," said doctors assured him that his son Oskar was "100 percent OK" when his wife noticed one of his eyes was changing color.

A couple of months later, he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma. Oskar ultimately lost an eye.

"But luckily for us, they were able to get all the cancer," Zinnemann said. "After 13 operations over the course of three years, he's completely clear. We want to do anything we can to pass on to other people what a severe problem this can be and how easy it is to fix."

Whitten was born with retinoblastoma, meaning she had a 50 percent chance of passing the disease onto her daughter, Sara. Her son was born without the disease, but her daughter wasn't as fortunate. Early detection saved her life -- but not her sight.

"If we had waited two or three more weeks she might not be alive," Whitten said, her voice cracking. "This bill is a very important because it's really hard when your baby is born with this."

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