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Program gives the gift of sight

Douglas Dan was used to having poor vision.

"I've been nearsighted all my life," said the 29-year-old Hudson man. "I've been wearing glasses since I was 4."

About a year and a half ago, however, his eyes started getting worse. It seemed his glasses were never strong enough and he started getting migraine headaches as a result.

The pain began to affect his job. Dan works as a dishwasher at a cafeteria in Port Richey and, as he says, "it's kind of hard to do anything when you've got a migraine headache."

An examination finally revealed the true problem: Dan had cataracts in both eyes. Cataracts, which cause blindness if left untreated, occur when the lens in the eye loses transparency. Hazy or blurred vision is the result.

Knowing the problem wasn't enough, though. Cataract surgery can cost more than $3,500 per eye, excluding doctor's fees and exam costs. Without health insurance, the operations would have been out of reach for Dan.

"It would have cost me a year's salary just to have it done," he said.

Enter Mission Cataract USA '94, a nationwide program designed to provide free cataract surgery to people like Dan who have no medical insurance or other means of paying and who do not qualify for Medicare, Medicaid or other government assistance.

Three clinics participating in the program locally are Rowan Eye Center in New Port Richey, Lazenby Cataract & Eye Care Center in Holiday and St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute in Tarpon Springs. Dan's left eye was operated on at St. Luke's on Feb. 19. He is scheduled to go back for the second surgery Thursday.

St. Luke's will perform more than 100 free cataract surgeries during the course of the program, said clinic spokeswoman Valerie Lipscomb. No more applications for this year's program can be accepted.

Dr. Thomas Lawrence, one of the clinic's ophthalmologists, has operated on 22 patients so far, including Dan, he said. "I'm doing as many as I can," he said Friday. "I'll do another 10 next week." Follow-up surgeries are generally for patients with cataracts in both eyes or those who could not be scheduled previously.

Lawrence said he enjoys helping people who might have gone without help otherwise. "The patients . . . they're very appreciative," he said. "It's gratifying to see their joy and the way it helps them in their lives."

He remembered Dan's case in particular. "He was a young fellow who was very nearsighted as well as (having) the cataracts. He was legally blind without his glasses."

Thanks to the kind of artificial lens used in cataract surgery, though, Dan's eyesight has improved to 20-30 vision, Lawrence said. Once the surgery on his right eye is complete, Dan said he will only need simple magnifying glasses for reading.

"For the first time in 20-plus years, I'll be able to go without glasses," he said.

"I'm going to be waking up looking for my glasses, but it's well worth it."