Keeping an eye on young pupils

Funding from the United Way of York County helps support VisionCorps’ preschool vision screenings, which can detect early problems that could lead to blindness.

In hindsight, Michelle Wherley can clearly see the early signs of her daughter’s vision problems. The first, she recalls, appeared at the end of a long play date at Grandma’s house when little Lucy, fussing and practically floppy with fatigue, walked right into a wall. Michelle picked Lucy off the ground and swaddled her quickly in her arms, laughing.

Another day, Lucy’s dad tossed her a ball. The 3-year-old seemed to follow its path before it fell untouched through her arms – again. That’s OK, he said. She’s just not going to be the athletic type.

One afternoon, Michelle remembers, there was a note in Lucy’s childcare locker. Eye screenings were held earlier that morning. Please see a pediatric ophthalmologist, the note read. Right away.

“I just remember thinking, I don’t know what these people are talking about,” she says today. “But, out of an abundance of caution, I made the call.”

A shocking diagnosis

After more than 20 years of giving young children vision screenings, Leora Wiest knows the signs.

Working as a prevention specialist for VisionCorps, formerly ForSight Vision Center, in York, she’s screened many cases that have resulted in a diagnosis of near-sightedness, far-sightedness, and astigmatisms. It’s a service she can provide thanks to funding from the United Way of York County.

She also occasionally sees the condition affecting young Lucy: amblyopia, which is decreased vision in one eye due to abnormal development of vision in infancy or childhood.

“Generally, when parents of the little ones find out, they’re shocked,” she says. “They just can’t believe it.”

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Patching the problem

Right away after her first doctor visit, Lucy began “patching,” covering her good eye to help strengthen the other.

Amblyopia involves the brain and one eye not working together and begins in children by the age of 5. If left untreated, it can cause permanent vision loss.

Early detection is key.

“Looking back, we were so lucky there was that screening,” Michelle says. “I don’t want to think about what would have happened otherwise.”

Still, for a shy little girl, wearing a patch to help along one lagging eye was no small thing. And Lucy’s diagnosis meant years of patching: countless childcare days and vacations, play dates and big birthday milestones. All with one eye covered.

Always uncomfortable. Always the looks and questions.

‘Making a difference’

Despite the difficulties surrounding the diagnosis – or perhaps because of them – many children with amblyopia in York County have found SUCCESS.

That’s a VisionCorps support group that provides both help and context for families working through the condition. Parents get the latest information and advice from a local optician. Children play games and do activities and get something even more important: time with other patching children and the understanding that they’re not alone.

VisionCorps has long championed early screenings. For years, Leora – a Prevention of Blindness Specialist with the organization – toted eye charts and other materials to schools and sites across York County, though in recent years the technology has improved.

These days, she travels with a Spot vision screener that can quickly and accurately diagnose numerous conditions. In mere seconds, a vision screening takes a “photo” of the child’s eyes and gives Leora immediate feedback. That means more efficient screenings, and more problems in kids caught sooner.

For Leora, it means even more of a good thing.

“You just know you’re making a difference for these kids,” she says, “and that’s very rewarding.”

Seeing the possibilities

Lucy loves her new glasses. Now, just a month shy of her 7th birthday, she even wrote a story about them called “Gracie’s Glasses,” the title referencing her middle name. It’s seven pages long, illustrated in bright colors.

And it has a happy ending.

The patch is gone. The vision in Lucy’s eye has improved from 20/400 to 20/25. And her mother watches each day as the girl continues to learn and grow.

“You want to do everything you can for your kids, and I’m just so thankful this turned out the way it did,” she says. “I’m so excited to watch where she goes from here.”

Today, you’ll likely find that little girl with her nose in a book or magazine, anything she can get her hands on. Recently, it was National Geographic, an article on how scientists and doctors are working to cure a certain kind of blindness by implanting tiny cameras.

Lucy stared at it for a long time, captivated. Then, after a long moment, she turned to her mother, eyes wide with a world of wonder, and whispered.

“It’s amazing.”

Sponsored by United Way of York County

unitedway-york.org
uwyc@unitedway-york.org
717-843-0957
800 E. King St., York, PA 17403

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