Caroline LaBonte was scheduled to have cataract surgery three years ago, but a combination of nerves and money worries caused her to cancel.
Since then, the 80-year-old Clearwater resident's eyesight has grown steadily worse.
"Now I can't see unless I'm very close," LaBonte said. "Everything is fuzzy, not like it used to be."
All of that changed Wednesday morning, thanks to a nationwide program aimed at restoring the vision of 100 needy patients.
LaBonte was selected to participate in "Changing 100 Lives in 100 Minutes," in which 100 patients received free cataract surgery.
LaBonte considered it nothing short of a miracle.
The event was initiated by Bausch & Lomb, which manufactures an innovative intraocular implant for cataracts patients. The company invited 100 eye surgeons to select patients to have cataracts removed at no cost. Surgeons agreed to perform the surgery without a fee and Bausch & Lomb donated 100 pairs of implants. The 100 minutes began at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.
LaBonte's surgery was performed by Dr. Robert Weinstock at the Eye Institute of West Florida in Largo.
"We were looking for a needy person that was very active and had a lot of living to do, no matter what their age," said Beverly Schroder, surgery coordinator at the institute. "Caroline LaBonte fit the bill."
By allowing the media into the operating room, Weinstock was able to demonstrate the advances in cataract surgery.
A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging. Cataracts are very common in older people, and by age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery, according to the National Eye Institute.
"Years ago, patients were immobilized after surgery with sandbags placed on each side of the head to prevent movement," Weinstock said. "Today they are sitting up, eating and drinking within minutes of the surgery."
Weinstock's operating room features a high-definition, 3-D projection system which allows him to operate while wearing 3-D glasses and watching a monitor.
Modern cataract surgery involves such tiny incisions that there are generally no stitches, no bandages and no blood. LaBonte was only mildly sedated and remained able to respond to Weinstock for the entire procedure.
Weinstock used ultrasonic waves to break up the cataract clouding LaBonte's vision. A small suction device removed the debris. Soon a clear eye appeared on the screen.
With practiced moves, Weinstock slipped the new lens in place. In just a few minutes, LaBonte's vision went from cloudy to clear.
Ten minutes after surgery, LaBonte was sipping coffee, eating a cookie and answering questions. As part of the program, the cataract on her opposite eye will be removed next week.
"I couldn't believe how easy it was," LaBonte said. "I just lay there and relaxed. Now I'm not at all worried about the second eye surgery."