What if you or someone you know needs to get a thorough eye examination? Or what if you want expert advice on how to make the most of your remaining sight? Where would you go? Until recently, your only option was to visit the office of an eye care professional.
However, since October of 2010, adults and children in Massachusetts have access to a very exciting—and convenient—alternative to the traditional office visit. Thanks to insurance providers, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, grants and fund-raisers, New England Eye now provides a mobile service known as New England Eye On-Sight that is reaching out to people in a diverse variety of locations across the state, from elementary schools to senior centers. Not long ago, Nee On-Sight’s Eye Van made a stop here in Lowell at the Pollard Memorial Library, giving the LAB’s own Jim Barrett a chance to personally tour this dynamic mobile exam center.
Although the van only measures 38 feet in length and about eight feet wide, Jim soon learned that a great deal was packed into this small space. Equipped with a wheelchair lift to accommodate people with mobility issues, it boasts two exam rooms separated by a waiting area.
While there, patients can expect to receive a comprehensive eye examination, made possible by specialized equipment such as the slit lamp and by devices that measure peripheral vision. In addition, the van boasts a cutting-edge piece of equipment that does Optical Coherence Tomography or OCT, which can show a picture of the eye in a way similar to how Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) captures detailed images of other body parts. Through the use of these hand-held and state-of-the-art devices, the staff can obtain accurate information about the health of people’s eyes and the extent of their vision, as well as being able to prescribe glasses and dispense some low vision devices on the same day.
However, even the most modern equipment is worthless without dedicated experts who know how to use it. On this day outside the Pollard Memorial Library, Jim had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Kaldenberg, an occupational therapist, and Dr. Gary Chu, an optometrist from New England Eye. Together, they form a team that guides the patient from initial eye examination to diagnosis of needs, and on to specific recommendations of how to make the most of remaining vision in daily life.
Since its maiden voyage in October of 2010, the Eye Van has made a real difference in thousands of lives here in Massachusetts. Dr. Chu estimated that it has traveled to 55 different communities, some more than once. Over 1,500 adults and children have directly benefited. The van is on the road four days per week, seeing adults on Mondays and Fridays and children as young as three years old on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Because vision loss can occur at any stage of life, Dr. Chu and Ms. Kaldenberg make sure to tailor their services to the patient’s particular needs. Pediatric services are concentrated in the cities of Boston, Lynn and Lowell, where visits occur at public schools and HeadStart programs. Dr. Chu emphasized how vital early intervention can be in cases of pediatric sight loss: “The children’s program is really looking at vision and learning, helping a child have optimal vision so their fullest potential can be reached. Vision is often forgotten, and sometimes when it’s forgotten, the kid is known as a special needs child when, in fact, a pair of glasses can make a huge difference.” On average, 18 months go by between the day when a child fails a vision screening in school and when he or she is seen in a traditional eye doctor’s office. The Eye Van is committed to shrinking that gap. Dr. Chu explained how they take it one step further: “One of our goals is to get each child two pairs of glasses, one at school and one at home. . . . Even for a child who is legally blind in terms of devices, there is one that the school gets and one that we get . . . that can be at home so that there is consistency. Wherever they are, there is a device that will help that child be successful.” Aggressively acting to help a child to optimize his or her remaining vision can be crucial in ensuring that the child can reach his or her educational potential later in life.
The benefits of early detection are also palpable for adults who may be experiencing vision loss due to conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. Statistics show, for instance, that only sixty percent of diabetics receive a full eye exam with dilation. This is vital in detecting diabetes-related changes in the eye at an early date when they can be addressed effectively.
Often,” Dr. Chu explained, people don’t know that something can actually be done to improve their situations. ”Yes, there are age-related changes. But that doesn’t mean that something can’t be done. Sometimes it’s as simple as a pair of glasses; sometimes it’s a low vision device, either a magnifier or electronic magnification or change in contrast that could improve a person’s life. That’s why Jen and I always work a lot together. We’re discussing the case, what’s best for the patient. Not just thinking about can I get them to see better, but can we get them to function better in their own environment, in their own world. . . Sometimes it’s changing the contrast in their living environment. Sometimes it’s figuring out what is the best lighting, what type of lighting . . . sometimes glare is an issue . . . Sometimes furniture needs to be a different color. . . just adding a little contrast on the lip of the tub so they can find the edge. Little things like that can make a difference.”
Jennifer Kaldenberg described the vital role she plays: “As an occupational therapist, I try to assist people in maintaining their function and independence . . . compensating for their visual impairment and maintaining their engagement in activities that are important to them. I work with the optometrist to find the best fit or best solution so that people are able to remain independent and do the things they want to do. I also help support, direct and coordinate the program.) These days, there is an exciting variety of low vision tools, from magnifiers to telescopes and closed circuit TV’s, that can enable patients to make the most of their remaining vision in the performance of everyday tasks. Whether it is reading printed materials, seeing the television or computer screen or viewing what a teacher has written on the board in a classroom, continued success in accomplishing these tasks can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
The New England Eye Van may just be one relatively small vehicle, but it offers a complete package of information and support to children and adults who need eye examinations and low vision devices. Because they are on the move every week, chances are good that they will be in a community close to you at some point in the not too distant future. To find out more about the New England On-Sight schedule, go to www.newenglandeye.org.