Expanding the Vision

Dr. O'Hara with young patient

Dr. Mary O’Hara remembers the crushed look on parents’ faces when she would refer their children to a clinic in Berkeley after diagnosing them with vision challenges. Many simply did not have the means to get there from the Sacramento area. The pediatric ophthalmologist with UC Davis Medical Center hated contributing to the isolation they already felt.

“We’re social creatures, and it’s incredibly lonely caring for a child with a disability,” O’Hara said. “You feel like there’s no one that can give you help. When you finally find a place to help, the loneliness and isolation go away and it’s much easier to tackle the situation.”

This year, Society for the Blind expanded its low-vision clinic services to include vision rehabilitation and pediatric eye care, much to the relief of O’Hara and her patients. The expansion of services at Society for the Blind’s Low Vision Clinic includes the addition of an occupational therapist and a second office in Roseville. Expanded pediatric services at the nonprofit also include monthly support groups for parents and braille classes for children.

“Society for the Blind has been a wonderful resource,” O’Hara said. “Through 3 years old, children with low vision can receive care through the state, but now we have somewhere to refer families of children ages 3 and up. Families are such an important part of treatment and support for children with low vision. If a parent feels empowered, they will be better at helping a child feel empowered.”

O’Hara said monthly support groups include child care for children who have low vision and those who are sighted. The purpose of the groups is to give parents the chance to sit down and share experiences and solutions.

“Parents are the ones who come up with the best solutions, and it’s very empowering for people to be able to help each other problem solve,” O’Hara said. “There’s nothing more helpful than communicating with people who have walked a road before you.”

Toni Boom, occupational therapist at Society for the Blind, and Dr. Caitlin Walsh, OD, Society for the Blind’s managing optometrist, are looking forward to working with more children on vision rehabilitation.

The clinic expansion took place when Society for the Blind acquired the practice of a retiring ophthalmologist this year. Prior to the expansion, the clinic provided low-vision evaluation for adults, evaluating the person’s current functional vision and prescribing magnification aids. With Dr. Walsh’s prior experience with pediatrics and the addition of Boom, the clinic was able to add pediatric services and offer vision rehabilitation that teaches patients, including children, how they can use the vision they still have and increase their independence.

“I used to work in physical rehabilitation,” Boom said. “It was such an in-and-out service that I felt like I wasn’t able to make the impact that I wanted to. Here, I get to spend an hour with each patient, which is a dream for me. And working with kids is so much fun. They’re sponges and just want to learn.”

Walsh agreed, noting that people often say this is the first clinic where they feel heard and can ask questions. One woman even told her that Society for the Blind clinic appointments are the only medical appointments she looks forward to because she knows she will learn something and be able to talk.

All three women stressed the importance of having a place where people of all ages with low vision can receive numerous services, from medical help and technological tools to a support system.

“Working at Society for the Blind is like a dream because there’s only so much we can do as optometrists,” Walsh said. “There comes a point where people need extra training, and it’s great to have all of our services in one place. I love that I can call upstairs and schedule someone for mobility training. Learning the whole skill set will empower kids and adults for the future.”

The UC Davis Eye Center and Society for the Blind plan to start conducting periodic clinics together to provide a full examination of each child and assess the child’s and family’s needs in one location to save families multiple trips.

Even with a resource closer to home, many families still travel a significant distance, some from Placerville, Redding, the Yosemite-area and even Southern California. Young families dealing with pediatric ophthalmology issues have to juggle taking time off of work and taking kids out of school for appointments. They often also have other children who need caregivers at home while the family travels.

As UC Davis conducts a feasibility study for a new building, Dr. Mark Mannis, chair of the UC Davis Eye Center and ophthalmology department, hopes to one day have an office for Society for the Blind in the same building to provide an even more direct link for patients. He sees it as a natural extension of the partnership created between the two organizations.

The UC Davis Eye Center has referred many patients to Society for the Blind over the years, but the partnership formally began when Mannis joined Society for the Blind’s board of directors in 2011. As he learned more about the many services at Society for the Blind, he decided to partner with the group on a new intraocular telescope for patients with end-stage macular degeneration who could not undergo surgery. The first collaborative effort was considered successful by both parties as patients were screened at UC Davis for the medical side of the procedure and then screened at Society for the Blind to see if they would be good candidates for visual rehabilitation. The program has been featured in several media outlets, and the two organizations are now working on a new study involving a spectacle that can read and recognize money and products without bulky instrumentation.

“We take care of people with the severest vision problems in the region, so we see Society for the Blind as a very good partner because it brings together both optometric services with visual rehabilitation services,” Mannis said. “Having Society for the Blind here in the community is such a precious resource for us.”

O’Hara agrees – especially for parents of children with low vision.

“Society for the Blind has such spirit and helps take parents over the river from feeling such loss and sadness to feeling like they can provide tools to help their kids have a great life,” O’Hara said.