Blind World Magazine

There are now well-established surgical techniques, and lens implants to replace the damaged, clouded-up lenses.

July 16, 2005
Providence Business News, Rhode Island.

A NEW OUTLOOK: Theresa Coutu has regained some of her vision with an innovative procedure at Miriam Hospital.Miriam Hospital surgery performed last month

Theresa Coutu has striking deep-blue eyes, but they've never been much good for seeing. She's been blind in her right eye since birth, and her left eye, at its best, was so weak that she needed thick glasses just to get to 20-40 vision, the least required for driving.

Yet none of this stopped Coutu from making a life for herself. She got married and raised five children; she worked as a nursing assistant. Then, at age 41, her "good" eye started failing her. Cataracts covered it so badly that the deep blue became white. The world outside went black.

Faced with a prognosis of lifelong blindness, Coutu adapted again. She applied for a seeing-eye dog, and got Almond, a big Labrador who's her faithful companion. She went back to school, earning a social work degree from Rhode Island College. And she took a new job, at Bannister House in Providence, counseling the residents with Almond at her side.

But this spring, just in case, Coutu went to get her eyes checked again. What she discovered, she says, should inspire everyone who's given up hope: Underneath her cataracts, her eyes were salvageable. After a surgery June 28, Coutu can see as clearly as ever.

"It's like winning the lottery," Coutu said. She has friends who are blind, she said, and she's urging them all to give it another try, even if not all can get such good results. "My goal is to get as many people as possible to get their vision checked."

About 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, and about one in 200 Americans was legally blind as of 1994-95. Only a fraction of those, however, are as severely blind as Coutu had gotten.

Cataract surgery - the procedure Coutu underwent to restore her vision - is "done on a routine basis," said her ophthalmologist, Dr. Thomas McCauley. There are well-established surgical techniques, and lens implants to replace the damaged, clouded-up lenses.

The Miriam Hospital, where McCauley is based, is one of the few hospitals that go even further, combining cataract removal surgery with a procedure to correct macular pucker, a wrinkling of the retina. Those operations, which McCauley said are now being done four or six times a week, can help patients go from legally blind to 20-20 vision within a year.

But not everyone is a good candidate for surgery. If the retina is hopelessly damaged, as it is for many blind people, removing cataracts won't restore vision, McCauley said. And for someone like Coutu, the thickness of the cataracts would've made it impossible years ago to test her retina. New diagnostic technology, however, has changed that.

"There are so many people who need to be re-evaluated," McCauley said. But many people, once they've been declared blind, "never go back to their eye doctor."

In Coutu's case, McCauley saw hope with both eyes. In April, he operated on her right eye, the always-blind one, and gave her at least some peripheral vision. Then, last month, he tackled the left eye, removing the cataracts and inserting a lens implant.

Almond was at her side when McCauley removed the bandage. Shaking with emotion, Coutu stood up and walked to the window, leaving her dog and cane behind.

"She cried for half an hour," McCauley recalled.

Coutu's good eye isn't perfect, but it's at 20-40 without correction, McCauley said - better than it's ever been, and good enough for her to need only regular-sized glasses. He's already cleared her for a driver's permit, so she can start getting her license back.

"Who wants me to let me drive their car today?" Coutu asked with a big grin at a news conference to announce the results of her surgery. She was also planning to go shopping for a new house with her husband, Dennis. Since she went blind, he said, they hadn't even been able to rearrange furniture, and they'd had to get rid of the family cat because it was a trip hazard.

But just because she can see now doesn't mean she'll sever her ties with the blind community. "I was an advocate before for myself," she said, "and now I can be an advocate for them, because I know what they've been through."

She's also keeping Almond, who without his harness, turns into a rambunctious, super-affectionate pup. Coutu has a new career in mind for the 7-year-old: therapy dog for Bannister House. After all, he's got plenty of experience with the residents.

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