When you first meet Shelley Kline, her incredible glasses immediately stand out. Forming a key part of her stylish and bold identity, her eyesight is something she’s immensely grateful for, and she is committed to empowering children with eye conditions just like her.
Shelley was diagnosed with a debilitating eye condition, and credits ophthalmologist Professor Frank Billson AO for his life-changing care. Shelley is establishing the Professor Frank Billson Research Scholarship to honour not only Prof Billson’s clinical legacy and his lifetime commitment to treating children and babies with sight problems, but also the personal care she received for close to 40 years.
Shelley Kline was eight years old when she was diagnosed with Uveitis. What started innocuously as ‘simply not feeling well’, escalated to Shelley being referred to a number of specialists before an eye specialist eventually diagnosed her with the condition.
“In Australia at the time, there wasn’t much information about Uveitis, so my family and I travelled to San Francisco in America where there was a designated clinic. It was there that we found out more about the condition and how best to treat it,” Shelley said.
Uveitis is a term used to describe a broad number of inflammatory diseases that produce swelling and redness within the eye, and ultimately destroys eye tissue. Uveitis can lead to scarring and permanent vision loss.
It was shortly following her diagnosis that Shelley was introduced to Prof Billson, or ‘Prof’ as she fondly refers to him, as he was one of the only specialists in Australia with expertise on Uveitis.
Prof Frank Billson AO has a long and distinguished career in ophthalmology which began in Melbourne. He has long standing ties with the RCH and was the Director of the Ophthalmology Department for seven years in the 1960’s. The idea of early intervention and the benefits that early diagnosis and treatment could offer for children and their families was a major interest. During his time at the RCH, the hospital’s expertise in paediatric ophthalmology became internationally recognised.
“Prof Frank Billson has had such a profound impact on my life. He was a brilliant doctor; he always had such a good way of presenting the information and allowing me to make my own decisions with regards to my health,” said Shelley.
For most of her childhood and adult life, Shelley’s eye condition has meant frequent visits to an ophthalmologist, and in her younger years she would visit a doctor weekly who would manage the inflammation and check for signs of glaucoma in her eye.
Shelley and her family also travelled from Melbourne where they lived, to the Sydney Eye and Ear Hospital where Prof Billson was then working, on a semi-regular basis for treatment. Shelley continued to travel to Sydney seeking Prof Bilson’s advice, even in adulthood, whenever there was a major or complex decision to make regarding her treatment.
“The reason I wanted to create this scholarship is to honour Professor Billson’s contribution to the world of ophthalmology. I feel blessed to have been his patient for almost 40 years, where I received endless hours of his precious time. He also taught me one of the most invaluable lessons which is never to allow my medical condition to define me.”
After a lifetime of treating her eye condition with steroids and medication, three years ago, Shelley received the news that there was no more that could be done. With the guidance of Prof Billson, Shelley made the difficult decision to have her eye removed.
“The eye wasn’t functioning properly, I was effectively blind and I could no longer handle the pain,” said Shelley. “Throughout my whole life, whenever there have been complicated decisions to make about my eye, Prof has taken the time to research, empathise, be supportive and focus on the patient’s choice – always.”
The Professor Frank Billson Research Scholarship will provide annual funding for a staff member within the Ophthalmology Department to assist with research activities supported by the Department.
Shelley aims to raise over $200,000 to support the scholarship, and is adamant that she wants to fundraise and establish the scholarship during Prof Billson’s lifetime.
“I’m excited for the challenge of fundraising, I love meeting and talking to people and telling them about Professor Billson,” said Shelley.
“I really wanted to do something as a way of saying thank you for doing so much for me throughout my life; he truly is a remarkable person. This is a way of honouring his legacy to medicine and on a personal level for me to say thank you for making a difference to children with eye problems.”