Recognized as one of the world’s finest low vision specialists, Dr. Richard Brilliant’s career with the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) has spanned over 40 years. Optometry and specifically the field of Low Vision Rehabilitation was not Dr. Brilliant’s first choice in careers but his career path seemed to choose him. “I’ve had a storybook career,” admitted Dr. Brilliant. “I was accepted to dental school, had a change of mind, applied last minute to the Pennsylvania College of Optometry and was accepted. From there, things just fell my way,” he said.
The Low Vision Residency program did not exist in 1976, the year Dr. Brilliant graduated. At that time, you didn’t receive your optometry license until September, despite having graduated in May. Even though he had a job waiting for him in New York, where he grew up, Dr. Randall Jose offered him an opportunity to work for the summer at the Center for the Blind, in Philadelphia where PCO had opened a low vision department. He accepted and that position led to a one year residency in Low Vision. That was followed by a three year fellowship under Dr. William Feinbloom
beginning one year before The Eye Institute opened in 1978.
After Dr. Jose’s departure, Dr. Brilliant was appointed department chief and helped to develop the Low Vision program at PCO. Initially there were two low vision programs, a four day program for patients from around the world as well as a local program. Patients in the four day program were seen from as far as Australia, China and Russia. Dr. Brilliant recounted a story about a high dignitary from Russia who he treated in the early ‘80s. “The patient had been seen here because high ranking officials in Russia couldn’t show any weakness, and visual impairment would have indicated a weakness. I was asked to see the patient but could not see any other patients during those four days,” he said. “We had to close the clinic down and the FBI, who had been following the dignitary and his “cardiologist,” stationed an agent at the front desk. The cardiologist it was later learned was actually his bodyguard. The patient’s goal was to be able to read his speeches and we were able to help him with that.”
During his fellowship Dr. Brilliant would often drive to Dr. Feinbloom’s farm in New Paltz, N.Y. to discuss and design various lens systems - some of which gained worldwide press. One, the Honeybee Lens, was developed after studying the compound eye of the honeybee and subsequently designing a compound telescope which would triple the field of a normal Galilean telescope. Another lens system, for expanding the visual field of a patient, was called the Amorphic Lens. It was initially expected that this lens would double the field of a patient with extremely reduced peripheral fields without reducing their visual acuity. Dr. Brilliant initially evaluated eight patients with this device, which caused six of the eight patients to become nauseous and vomit after a few minutes of use. After a few changes in the prototype, the final product was created and did work well for some patients. Unfortunately, Dr. Feinbloom passed away before seeing the final product. The creation of these lenses, along with national and international coverage by newspapers and television media, helped to bring in international patients. The success and growth of the William Feinbloom Vision Rehabilitation Center into a multi-disciplinary center helped to support The Eye Institute for a number of years until Primary Care and other Specialty Services were able to expand their patient populations.
During his residency, he also had the opportunity to meet Dr. Guy Chan, the chairman of the department of Ophthalmology at Temple University. He was introduced to Dr. Guy Chan by his wife, Nongart Chan, also an ophthalmologist who saw patients along with Dr. Brilliant at the Center for the Blind. Dr. Chan offered Dr. Brilliant the opportunity to moonlight by working in the department of Ophthalmology on Saturdays when he was not seeing patients at the Center for the Blind. This opportunity was quite unusual in the late ‘70s, where an optometric resident was allowed to work in a hospital setting, in a major Philadelphia hospital, having the same privileges as that of the ophthalmology residents. Dr. Brilliant continued to moonlight at Temple Hospital, following the completion of his residency, until 1990.
Later in his career, Dr. Leonard Ginsburg, who was finishing up a retinal fellowship at Harvard University, called inquiring about setting up a low vision program in a hospital outside of the Philadelphia area, once his practice was established. “A number of optometrists in the area had referred him to me as the best in the area in low vision services,” Dr. Brilliant said. “I told him I would do it for a year; I would help him set the program up, assist him in establishing it and would have another low vision doctor continue the program. I’ve now been working over 20 years at the program, with the assistance of one of my former resident’s Dr. Georgia Crozier, ‘84. The Moore Eye Institute is now a major low vision program in the suburbs.” Dr. Brilliant has credited his career at PCO, and the opportunity to establish his name in the field of low vision for his many opportunities.
Dr. Brilliant was invited for a number of years to speak at the board of the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles on low vision devices, which would assist low vision individuals in driving. “Each year the board would call to say although I presented good information, they were not going to change the policy on allowing bioptic telescopes for driving,” he said. After a couple of years of presenting to the board, they called Dr. Brilliant to say they were still not allowing low vision devices, but they were reducing the visual acuity requirements. This policy change positively affected the lives of two brothers with low vision, living in rural Pennsylvania, who were his patients. As a result of this policy change, they each qualified for a driver’s license, and purchased a car. During a recent visit, one of the brothers advised Dr. Brilliant that both their lives changed dramatically after their initial visit with him. The ability to drive allowed them to get jobs outside of the area they lived, which in turn led to meeting their wives and starting families.
“Knowing you made an impact in a patient’s life, as it relates to one’s career choice, puts everything in perspective,” admitted Dr. Brilliant. “Patients don’t realize when they’re successful it makes our day as well. We get to change their lives and it never gets old.” Dr. Brilliant recalled a patient, with Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, who he helped with low vision devices to successfully complete medical school and became a successful pediatrician. A patient from Germany who was visually impaired gifted him ceramic figurines which he painted. He was able to continue his career after using a prescribed low vision device. Another patient, who found out that Dr. Brilliant kept horses in his backyard, presented him with an oil painting of a horse that she was able to paint with the assistance of a simple magnifier that he had prescribed for her. “To hold a paintbrush in one hand and the magnifier in the other, while looking through the magnifier and painting such detail, was an unbelievable feat that she had performed,” he remarked.
In addition to lecturing throughout the world and the many articles he published, Dr. Brilliant authored an optometry textbook, Essentials of Low Vision Practice. He also designed and developed many low vision devices and has been involved in the clinical investigations of many low vision devices/lenses for low vision manufacturers.
Dr. Brilliant is now starting a new commitment - retirement. It’s been a good ride, a great career, a lifeline. But now I want to see my grandchildren grow up.
“I spent my career at a school that was gracious enough to present me with a Presidential Medal of Honor and appoint me professor emeritus, so even with my retirement, I’ll still be involved in some capacity,” he said. “I am so thankful that administration supported us through the years and realized the importance of the Low Vision Program. Vision rehabilitation is not a cure but it allows people to function better, to watch TV, go to a show, watch their grandchildren play sports. It’s a unique program, not only to optometry but to PCO. We have a great staff to continue the program. We have the best students. I’m looking forward to hearing the stories that come out of the William Feinbloom Vision Rehabilitation Center in the future.”