A Simple Surgery Can Fix Cataract Blindness, But Many Can’t Afford It

The Centers for Disease Control estimates more than 20 million people in the U.S. have cataracts.

By Christopher ConnellyMay 19, 2016 10:46 am, ,

From KERA News

Four years ago Joe Hernandez was told he had cataracts and his vision would get worse. It did.

Eventually, he could see nothing but light and shadow out of one eye. The vision in the other started to fail, too. A simple surgery would fix him, but he was uninsured and couldn’t afford it.

Cataract surgeries are one of the most common surgical procedures in the US. But for many, like Hernandez, treating the cataracts is unaffordable. Left untreated, the clouding of the eye lens means a slow descent to impaired vision and eventual blindness.

Hernandez says his wife called doctor after doctor for him, but everywhere she called, a surgery was too expensive.

“We don’t have no money,” Hernandez said. “Everything I make just goes on bills, so it was impossible.”

The 58-year-old says one of the hardest things about losing his vision was not being able to read his Bible. Driving, though, was the scariest. He had to keep driving, he says to get to his job stocking shelves at a big box store in Fort Worth. His family couldn’t afford the extra gas for his wife or son to drop him off and pick him up. The future looked bleak.

“My wife would cry,” Hernandez said, crying himself as he remembered. “’She would say Joe, you can’t go blind on us. Joe you can’t go blind. What are we going to do?’”

But his wife kept trying, and was ultimately referred to the Cornerstone Clinic, a free clinic in Fort Worth that performs the surgeries for free every month or so for people who can’t afford them. Palestine-based ophthalmologist Daniel Gold volunteers there.

“People are falling through the cracks,” he said. “Cornerstone sees those people, and they help us to see them. And when we come into contact with them, we can actually do something to help fix them.”

Removing the cataract is pretty quick work. Gold cuts a tiny incision – 2.6 millimeters in Hernandez’s case – and uses a fancy machine that makes a kind of weird noise as ultrasonic waves to break up the bad lens. Then, an artificial lens goes in and Hernandez is off to a recovery room. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes.

Cataracts are incredibly common, especially in older people. The Centers for Disease Control estimates more than 20 million people in the US have them. The National Eye Institute says that number will more than double by 2050 as the population ages. Cataracts are also incredibly treatable, but the surgeries can cost several thousand dollars. Not everyone who can’t afford the surgery are uninsured.

“There’s a large number of our patients who have been able to access insurance, but we call them underinsured because they have very high deductibles or co-pays and so they end up going without care,” said Jennifer Deakins, an optometrist who runs the Community Eye Clinic in Fort Worth.

Read more