POULSBO — If Rebecca Petris had her way, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. Petris, the owner of the Dry Eye Company in Poulsbo, knows first hand that dry eyes can be painful and life changing.
She developed dry eye, which led to ulcers and scars on her cornea, after having laser surgery in July 2001. She was an investment banker at the time, working in commercial jet leasing in London, England. She’d had the eye surgery done in California. This was soon after laser eye surgery became popular and its potential impact on dry eye wasn’t well understood, she said.
As a result, she experienced severe vision loss and “pretty severe dryness and pain,” she recalled.
She differentiates between occasionally having dry eyes due to being out in the wind, for example, and “Dry Eye” — around-the-clock pain and discomfort to the point where someone can only sleep for a couple of an hours at a time because their eyes dry out.
“Dry Eye — capital ‘D,’ capital ‘E’ — can be life changing,” she said. “The fact your eyes can be in pain every minute, where drops don’t help.”
“As a hobby, I got into helping other people find doctors and treatment options. I found there was a huge group of people out there with complications from Lasik eye surgery who had been abandoned by the medical community.” The medical community at the time tended to look at patients “like a pair of eyeballs” rather than seeing dry eye as a quality of life issue, she said.
Because of her work, Petris said, in 2002-03 the British government asked her to put together a parliamentary committee to recommend regulations for eye surgery in the United Kingdom.
“It didn’t pass, but it raised public awareness,” she said. It also led to more more invitations to speak at other conferences in Greece and elsewhere.
Ultimately, she had to give up her full-time banking job.
“I couldn’t see to do 12-, 14-, 16-hour days any more,” she said. “I was in too much discomfort and eye strain.” So she moved to Florida and worked only part-time. And, in 2004, she started the Dry Eye Company.
Later, she moved to Poulsbo because the climate here is kinder on eyes.
“This is a very eye-friendly climate … One of the best places to live if you have dry eye,” she said.
She wanted to go into business for herself, she said, and dry eye was “the lowest hanging fruit.”
“I felt I could have more impact if I went [into it] as a business, rather than a nonprofit,” she said.
Her company website (www.dryeyezone.com) has several components.
There’s the Dry Eye Shop. A central distributor, it sells products on the internet and there is a shop in Poulsbo at 20720 Highway 305 NE, Suite 2A. Petris said individual customers comprise 95 percent of her business; the rest are doctors’ offices.
Besides the shop, there’s the Dry Eye Zone, with helpful information such as consumer guides to various types of dry eye products, definitions of dry eye terms, and a list of ongoing dry eye drug clinical trials.
Then there’s Dry Eye Talk, a community forum for people suffering from dry eye.
Finally, there’s The Dry Eye Digest, which offers summaries of recent research on dry eye, major news on new dry eye drugs and devices, as well as her own experiences.
‘I had to staff up’
At the beginning of 2016, her business “got hit by a train” when a major supplier of contact lens solution for gas-permeable lenses took it off of the market. Gas-permeable lenses hold fluid against the eye all day and can be used to optically correct damaged corneas and for surface disease treatment of the cornea.
As panicky calls from customers started coming in, Petris set out in search of another supplier — and found one, a small firm in New Jersey that imported the product from Germany. They weren’t equipped for customer service, so Petris provided it as the whole country experienced chronic shortages for the next six months.
“We were triaging left and right,” she said, finding product for dry eye customers. “Sales quadrupled in a couple of months and I had to staff up.”
The crisis passed, but one significant outcome was a band of loyal customers who “knew we were looking out for them,” Petris said. “People miss the service side of retail.”
Today, the company’s business is 50 percent dry eye products and 50 percent lens care, which is just the way Petris likes it.
“People with dry eye are often in severe pain,” she said. Providing them with safe, non-medical devices that they can use to make them more comfortable in their everyday lives is her goal.