Zulema Hinojos-Fall, Ophthalmology


​How UW Medicine gave me a reprieve from pain.

My name is Zulema, and I’m an administrative judge for a federal agency. As the first person in my family to go to college, I have a very personal connection to what I do.

​Growing up in a poorer neighborhood with working-class parents, I never thought law school was an option for me. Kids like us weren’t really told about what options we had, what opportunities there might be for us. In high school, nobody even told me about the SATs until I asked about them.

It was only through my own curiosity, commitment and working a series of hard jobs that I was able to go to college and find the opportunities I did. That’s why today, so much of my life is devoted to helping others, not solely through my work as a judge but also through Year Up, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping urban young adults discover opportunities and succeed in life. I even travel to other countries to educate people on the rule of law and how to lift themselves up.

People imagine a judge’s day as sitting behind the bench in their robe, issuing rulings and commands. In reality, 90 percent of my job is reading briefs, performing research and writing opinions that often stretch to 30 pages. It suits me perfectly because I’m a voracious reader. In our 30 years together, my husband and I have never owned a television, preferring instead to read anything and everything.

My eyes are my life. I’d sooner give up my hearing than my vision. And that thought actually went through my head when I started having eye trouble. Left eye, specifically.

It was red, irritated and very painful. My previous doctors didn’t know the cause. So they focused on treating the most outward symptom — the pain.

They prescribed large doses of steroid medication to try to manage the pain, but as the pain grew, the dosage grew. I’ve since learned that an acceptably high dosage of prednisone is 10 mg. And only for short periods. At the peak, I was taking 80 mg, and the pain was feeling less and less under control.

To say I was miserable is an understatement. I was missing work. I was tired and lethargic. I started experiencing depression.

All my life, I’ve been a busy, active person. This pain was changing me.

Oddly enough, it took a trip to the San Francisco Bay area to bring me to UW Medicine. Our friend there knew a physician in San Francisco who knew a physician at UW Medicine who said that Dr. Van Gelder (UW Physician, Harborview Medical Center) was the one to see.

We were warned, however, that Dr. Van Gelder is very busy and usually booked up. I kept my expectations low. But the very next day, from out of the blue, I received an email from Dr. Van Gelder himself to set up my appointment.

That was my first indication that Dr. Van Gelder was different. The second came in our very first consultation.

It was instantly clear that this was a man devoted to his work. He truly is quite busy, yet he made time for me because he saw that I needed help, and he thought that he could make a difference for me.

He told me that, first, we needed to reduce and ideally eliminate the steroids, as prolonged use can do as much damage to a person as good. And to do that, we needed to find another solution for my eye pain, which was caused by inflammation.

I remember when he sat forward at his desk and put it to me in the clearest terms possible. “There is a chance that you could lose your eyesight,” he told me. “My mission in life is to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

My husband and I left that first meeting confident that we were finally in the right place.

Dr. Van Gelder told me that I suffered from an autoimmune disorder attacking my left eye and that he knew of an experimental drug being used for cancer patients that could help me. So he immediately started building a treatment plan to begin a gradual, positive change for me. And over the next few years, he continually adjusted my regimen and tracked my progress, and before long my pain became less and less.

The previously high doses of prednisone had, in fact, done damage. They caused a cataract, which Dr. Van Gelder’s colleague Dr. Shen (UW Physician, Harborview Medical Center) corrected. And it caused my eyelid to droop. That was fixed too.

I know it sounds corny to say, but is there anybody on that team who isn’t fantastic?

Dr. Van Gelder’s expertise in treating eye disease is impressive in and of itself, but his holistic approach to patient care really shone through. He doesn’t simply look at my eye, he works to help stop the disease from taking hold in my body, tracking my overall health with blood work and other tests.

I came in with an eye problem, and what I got was a doctor devoted to helping the whole me. Even when I need to travel, which is quite often with my work, Dr. Van Gelder looks for specialists in the area where I’m going who have the capability of helping me if I need it.

The care I’ve received is far beyond what I experienced from any other doctor before coming to UW Medicine. Dr. Van Gelder saved my sight and, I believe, me.

As far as I’m concerned, he and his team walk on air.