Debbie Allen Shares Her Story with Pre-Diabetes and the Importance of Regular Eye Exams

The multihyphenate Debbie Allen is a legend in Black culture. Not only has she starred in some of our favorite TV classics like “A Different World” and “In the House,” but she’s also produced many of them, been instrumental in shaping young Black and brown dancers and so much more. Now, Allen is bringing forth something equally important—her latest partnership that urges us to get regular screenings for eye-related diseases.

A recent national survey found that 95% of adults at risk for retinal diseases, like wAMD, DME and DR, know a little or nothing about them. At the same time, more than two-thirds of those adults (70%) have experienced symptoms of retinal disease. However, once equipped with information about these diseases, most at-risk adults (79%) were likely to schedule a comprehensive eye exam in the next 6 months. These findings are a large part of why the “Grey’s Anatomy” Executive Producer decided to partner with Prevent Blindness and Regeneron to launch the Gr8 Eye Movement, an awareness campaign that aims to educate and encourage those who are at risk of or affected by certain retinal diseases, and their loved ones, to prioritize their eye health.

“This initiative speaks to millions of people who are at risk for retinal diseases and don’t know it,” Debbie Allen tells EBONY via Zoom Video. “This will bring awareness, education and resources to those 60 and older who are at risk. I’m just trying to get information out, and this is a great way and important reason to use my celebrity. It’s kind of who I’ve become, and it’s a great way to have a purpose in life for me.”

While Allen certainly carries an impactful and persuasive voice within Black culture, she candidly shares that this particular partnership is personal for her, as several of her family members have been affected by diabetes and its effects, including blindness. “I grew up seeing diabetes all in my family; seeing my grandfather give himself a shot and wondering, what is that? Then watching over the years it take my aunts and uncles, my father into a place of loss of eyesight; loss of life. So I know that I am at risk. It’s in my DNA. I was lucky to not have developed full-blown diabetes. But I knew when I was diagnoses that I needed to take it serious.”

Diabetes is a leading cause of new blindness in the United States. Consistently high blood sugar due to poor glucose control over time can damage small blood vessels in the body, including the eye. Diabetic retinopathy is a disease that damages the blood vessels in the retina, resulting in vision impairment. Left untreated, fluid can leak into the center of the macula, called the fovea, the part of the eye where sharp, straight-ahead vision occurs.

“Your eyesight is your entry into so many things into the world. If I didn’t have my eyesight, I couldn’t do what I do on “Grey’s Anatomy” or the play I just directed, “Veg Clay McMahon”—which has a huge visual component. I can’t express the importance of it [eyesight]. I’ve seen it take away people’s ability in my family, I’ve watched it happen. 95% of the people at risk have no idea, as it’s something you may not always see. You really need to pay attention to your sight. And, don’t think that just because you’re older, it’s normal to not have great eyesight—that’s just not true.”