By Fia Curley
Eugenia McMillan was just a child when she suffered an accident that resulted in a damaged eye nerve and the loss of vision in her left eye. By the time grade school rolled around, McMillan said she was already wearing glasses. And despite surgery that was intended to correct her vision, McMillan said things didn't improve, leaving her legally blind in one eye with 20/100 vision.
So years later, when McMillan went to see a specialist, she took her 17-year-old daughter, Michelle, along.
"I just decided to go," McMillan said. "It wasn't anything but the Spirit that led me to go, I say, because that's when they diagnosed Michelle."During the visit, they found that the pressure in Michelle's eyes was high, making her a strong candidate for glaucoma, a group of diseases that attack the optic nerve, which transmits visual information from the eye to the brain.
At first things seemed bleak.
"For the longest time I had perfect vision and then my vision was going down hill and I was going blind," Michelle said, adding that she thought the onset of headaches conveyed a need for a stronger glasses prescription.
"I'm glad they found it early instead of too late," said Michelle, a political science major at Spelman College in Atlanta . "Once I found out I was a suspect, I found out I had a history in my family."
McMillan's paternal uncle is blind due to glaucoma, a factor she wasn't exposed to until later in life because of her parent's divorce.
"I was a little concerned, but I was glad they caught it," McMillan said.
Michelle began using her eye drops as instructed to keep the pressure at bay.
During her freshman English class, Michelle received the assignment to contact three organizations or companies that deal with topics of interest to the student's personal life. She asked, "What can be done to educate other African Americans about the seriousness of glaucoma and how it is the leading cause of blindness among them?"
Of the three Michelle contacted, the Glaucoma Research Foundation was the only one to respond. And when the McMillans' home church, Third Baptist Church in Portsmouth , Va. , found out about GRF's correspondence with Michelle and their invitation for her to join them in California for seminars, the church donated money to the foundation.
"Our church is always giving and doing stuff on behalf of the community," McMillan said.
From there the HBCU Glaucoma Awareness Initiative was born to target the at-risk African-American population at historically black colleges and universities and spread the word about the dangers of a symptom-less eye disease.
However, African Americans aren't the only ones not protecting their eyesight.
People, in general, may say they care about their vision, but actually caring for their vision seems to be more challenging.
A September survey conducted by Harris Interactive for the Vision Care Institute of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc., found that although people say their vision is a priority, they're not being proactive when it comes to maintaining children's vision health or their own.
About 3,700 people were surveyed. The results showed that 72 percent of African Americans said they strongly agreed that maintaining proper vision is an important priority, but 21 percent did not have a regular eye care professional. About 94 percent of Asian Americans agreed that maintaining proper vision is an important priority, but 36 percent said they believed they didn't need an eye exam unless something was wrong.
And about 27 percent of Hispanics said they strongly agreed that they were concerned about their vision getting worse. However, they were the least likely group to see an eye care professional in 2005.
The findings had some concerned that the numbers may indicate further trouble, given the fact that eyes diseases have a disproportionate burden on minorities.
Glaucoma affects approximately three million people nationwide and can even occur in babies. Although glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in African Americans, experts believe over half of the people with the disease don't know they have it. In the early stages, it may be hard to recognize symptoms, or there may not be any.
Prevent Blindness America, a volunteer organization that has focused on eye health and safety since 1908, began with a focus on children but now works to prevent blindness and preserve sight in all age groups. With the dissemination of free materials and a portion of their Web site devoted to glaucoma, the organization tries to educate people about the importance of knowing the risks, symptoms and options.
"Once you loose your vision to glaucoma, you can't get it back," said Sarah Hecker, director of media relations for Prevent Blindness America.
Causes of the eye disease vary. According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation in San Francisco , studies have shown that Hispanics in older age groups are more likely to have glaucoma than people with European ancestry and African Americans are six to eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. People's risks can increase if they are over 60 years of age; have severe myopia, have immediate family members with glaucoma—chance increase four to nine times—have had eye injuries, or used steroids.
For some, Hecker said, their "vision doesn't rank up there with life and death things."
"Some people just don't think it's going to happen to them," Hecker said. "They just figure ‘well, you're going to get older and your vision is going to go.'"
Other diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension can also play a role.
People who have diabetes are 40 percent more likely to develop secondary glaucoma, according to the American Diabetes Association. The most common type of glaucoma is chronic or open angle glaucoma, which occurs from the build up of fluid and eventually pressure in the eye. A person's vision begins to deteriorate on the periphery of the eye, making it less noticeable and harder for the person to detect.
The North Carolina affiliate of PBA regularly schedules adult vision screenings, targeting senior adults and at-risk populations in order to check for warning signs during different community events. Betty Clary, adult program director, targets senior and recreational centers when working in a new county. But in the counties where PBNC is better known, Clary said invitations for screenings are often extended.
"More of the African-American churches are being proactive, which is great," she said, adding that PBNC is becoming a regular attendee at church fairs.
After a person is screened, they are given their results along with an explanation of what the results mean to their vision and advice as to whether they should visit an eye care professional. If a person has financial difficulties, screeners then give information about organizations that can help. Then Clary takes a day to mail letters and call people who were screened to see if they were able to get their eyes checked.
Last year, the Raleigh affiliate screened more than 6,000 people by attending health fairs, the annual 2-day La Fiesta organized by Hispanic community members and even the state fair.
"At the state fair, we set up vision screening which seems to be a well-accepted and well-attended event with younger people who wouldn't go to a screening otherwise," Clary said. "It lets people know, ‘I need to get my vision checked more often.'"
Clary said a few weeks ago, they conducted screenings at a business and found similar situations.
"These individuals had vision coverage, but they were coming through with vision problems and you just sort of shake your head and say ‘what's the deal with this?,'" she said. "I think to a certain extent it is human nature, knowing something's important, but not taking the responsibility for yourself and doing it."
Although she's not sure exactly why people aren't prioritizing eye health, Clary said she has noticed women, in particular, put off their health until everyone else is checked.
"I've heard people say, ‘as long as I can see ok, I don't need to go to the doctor,'" Clary said. "In theory that can be good, but you can have serious problems and not know it—glaucoma is one of those. People don't have symptoms until they lose sight."
With the goal of not letting things get that far, Hecker said it is vital to eliminate obstacles such as access and financial issues and spread the word concerning Medicare's coverage of eye screenings.
"You can't go back and save the vision you've lost," she said, "but you need to make sure you save the vision you have."
Fia Curley is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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