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Clinics help make best of failing vision

Suzanne Borsuk pulled herself close to the wide-screen monitor and read each word, letter by letter. "S-E-V-E-R-E, severe," Ms. Borsuk, 80, said.

Minutes later she looked at a recipe and this time read each sentence, word by word.

"I can read the words now," Ms. Borsuk said. "I can see them."

Ms. Borsuk is one of about two hundred patients who has learned to see again with the help of the Low Vision Rehabilitation Program at Tampa General Hospital. The 8-month-old clinic is one of only two major programs in Hillsborough County that provides rehabilitative assistance to people who have lost much of their eyesight.

Clinics for people with low vision are becoming invaluable in the Tampa Bay area, some hospital officials say, because of longer life expectancy, the growing number of elderly people and Florida's reputation as a retirement destination.

"You can count on the fact that with the increase in the elderly population, we will see an increase in the number of people with low vision," said Dr. Donald Fletcher, an ophthalmologist and director of the Tampa General clinic.

Florida's population is getting older and so is Hillsborough's, according to the 1990 U.S. Census. The median age in the state went from 30.9 in 1950 to 36.45 in 1990. In Hillsborough, the median age is 33 _ up from 30.4 in 1980. Median age is the midpoint between a population _ half is older and half younger.

The census also shows that people older than 65 represent 18.3 percent of the state's population, up from 17.3 percent in 1980. And more than 210,000 Florida residents were older than 85, compared with 117,342 a decade ago.

Of people older a65, Fletcher said, 8 percent suffer from some sort of vision problem. That translates to 190,369 elderly people with low vision problems in Florida.

Tampa General is the state's second largest public hospital. It is the only hospital in the bay area that provides a comprehensive low vision rehabilitation program, said Emily Stehle, spokeswoman for Tampa General. The Lighthouse for the Blind in Tampa also has a low vision rehabilitation program.

Fletcher said comprehensive low-vision clinics did not appear in the bay area until the 1980s. Before then, many people who lost part of their vision were relegated to nursing homes or forced to rely on another person for many everyday activities.

Most of Fletcher's patients have one session at the clinic and one session in their home. After working at the clinic, many are encouraged to participate in support groups. There are about six low-vision support groups in Hillsborough, Fletcher said.

Elderly people with low vision suffer from conditions including cataracts, glaucoma and eye injuries. Most of the patients in rehabilitation have conditions that cannot be corrected.

Ms. Borsuk suffers from a severe case of macular degeneration, the deterioration of the central area of the retina. Ms. Borsuk has 20/1200 vision and she can read something like people with normal vision only if it is magnified 60 times.

Ms. Borsuk said that in 1976 she began to notice that she was losing her sight. She sought medical help, but her optometrists only prescribed stronger glasses for her condition.

"I'd been getting more and more down in the dumps," Ms. Borsuk said, "because I didn't see a future for me." Ms. Borsuk said she did not learn about low vision clinics until her optometrist recommended Fletcher this year.

During a two-hour session with Dr. Fletcher, Ms. Borsuk learned to use advanced equipment such as special hand-held lenses and a video magnifier for reading. She also learned how to use simple stencils to write her name, fluorescent rubber tabs to mark stoves and timers and dark tape to mark contrasts on her kitchen cabinets. Most of the tools are cheap. The magnifier, however, can cost $2,500.

Fletcher said he hopes low-vision clinics and support groups will grow so competition for the magnifiers will lower their cost. In addition, Fletcher said, some support groups may share magnifiers.

Ms. Borsuk said she has not been able to read since 1981. She used to enjoy reading the newspaper, cookbooks and working crossword puzzles.

After her first session, Ms. Borsuk said she learned enough to begin baking in her kitchen again. If she decides to buy the video magnifier, she can return to reading, knitting and crocheting.

"I will be able to bring back some of the things that I did before," Ms. Borsuk said. "I will be able to make the best of the situation."