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The Eyes Have It: SWFL Children’s Charities Eye Institute to Open at Golisano This Summer

Jul 14, 2021 03:19PM ● By KATHY MONTGOMERY

When Eleanor “Ellie” O’Neal was born March 11, 2018, 17 weeks premature, she weighed one pound, three ounces. Doctors gave her parents, Christine and Brendan, the option of “comfort care” or resuscitating their daughter. 

“Doctors painted a difficult picture for Ellie: If she survived, she would likely face a multitude of complications—cerebral palsy, brain bleeds, blindness, or she might not make it at all,” Christine says. “They said comfort care might be the only chance for me to hold her.” 

But Ellie and her parents were fighters, even as she experienced complications not uncommon for tiny premature babies. The lower the gestational age and birth weight, the greater the risk of severe, sight-threatening disease or blindness from retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP. Ellie suffered a brain bleed and a diagnosis of aggressive ROP.  

“Without treatment, she had a 50 percent chance of blindness,” says Dr. Jessica Kovarik, pediatric ophthalmologist at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, who treated Ellie with two eye injections and laser surgery to avoid retinal detachment.  

Her parents expected her to have some vision impairment, but Ellie defied the odds and today has normal vision. The active, blonde three-year-old with bright blue eyes has graduated from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) developmental follow-up clinic. 

The future for children like Ellie will be clearer this summer when the SWFL Children’s Charities Eye Institute of Golisano Children’s Hospital opens, ensuring access to pediatric ophthalmology care in Southwest Florida. SWFL Children’s Charities, whose fundraiser is the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, pledged $3 million to build the institute in 2020. 

When Kovarik joined Golisano six years ago, she was the hospital’s, and the area’s, only pediatric ophthalmologist. With a medical assistant and only two examination rooms, wait times for appointments could be up to nine months. Otherwise, patients had to travel to Tampa, Miami or Sarasota for treatment. 

“At one point, I had to triage urgent problems over things that could wait,” says Kovarik, lead physician for pediatric ophthalmology. “It was stressful for me and for my patient families. It’s much better now that we have expanded our team and soon will be moving into a beautiful new space.” 

 Currently, three doctors treat patients in two different buildings because there’s not enough examination space. The wait time for an appointment is roughly six weeks. The new institute will have room for four doctors with 14 examination rooms, reducing wait times. It will also encourage more collaboration between doctors and the hospital.  

The goal is to be available to help children like Walter, 7, who experienced sudden vision loss, caused by optic neuritis, a rare condition in children that can impact more than vision. Early intervention and treatment restored 20/20 vision in each of Walter’s eyes. 

Another little girl was so light sensitive she would cry in the sunlight. After other providers could not relieve her pain, the team found the girl had some abnormalities in her cornea and prescribed a steroid drop, warm compresses and lid scrubs. 

“She is an entirely different child now,” says Dr. Shauna Berry, another ophthalmologist at Golisano. “She runs around and goes to the beach, and her vision improved with the proper treatment and diagnosis.” 

Another infant brought in for a routine eye exam was found to have swollen optic nerves caused by a malfunction of a shunt for hydrocephalus. When the condition was discovered, he was rushed into neurosurgery. Without the eye exam, his parents might not have known that the shunt had malfunctioned. 

The new eye institute will meet the growing need for pediatric services close to home. “We’re excited,” Kovarik says. “It will be modern with a lot more space and a lot of new equipment. It has been a long time coming. We are grateful for the very generous people behind this.” 

SWFL Children’s Charities continues to raise money to improve pediatric health-care services in the Southwest Florida region and has donated more than $20 million to Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida since 2009. To support the eye institute, visit  


Kathy Montgomery has been writing about Southwest Florida and the important issues facing the community for more than 30 years.