Small change makes a big difference

Published: February 7, 2011  |  Source: phillyburbs.com
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While eyeglasses can be an inconvenience, they can be limiting for people like Dan Larsen, who has been paralyzed for 11 years.

Vanity, expense and convenience drive people to laser vision correction surgery. Necessity is what motivated Dan Larsen.

The 27-year-old Middletown man is paralyzed from the shoulders down. He has limited use of his arms, but no use of his hands or fingers.

For him, eyeglasses were more than a nuisance. They’d slide down his nose. Keeping them clean was difficult without help. He tried contact lens, but had no success.

He had a consultation about laser eye surgery, but was told he wasn’t a good candidate. Then he contacted Dr. Harmon Stein.

The Middletown ophthalmologist has performed the popular procedure more than 10,000 times, but never on someone with a spinal cord injury. Stein couldn’t see any reason not to, especially since it would significantly improve Larsen’s quality of life.

Vision correction surgery is not unheard of among people with quadriplegia. In 2005, two U.S. eye surgeons created Focus on Independence, a nonprofit group that has provided at least 100 free procedures to people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries.

Larsen became paralyzed after he hit his head in the shallow end of a swimming pool when he was 16 years old. About five years ago, he developed nearsightedness and astigmatism in both eyes, meaning he has trouble seeing at a distance.

He tried contact lenses for a few weeks, but they took too long to insert and sometimes popped out during the day. So he resigned himself to wearing glasses.

But that wasn’t much of an improvement.

He often smudges the lenses when trying to push glasses up his nose with his fists. When no one is home (he lives with his brother), he tries to clean them but it’s usually with mixed success.

“Clear in some spots and blurry in other spots, especially at night, it’s bad,” said Larsen, who has a part-time job doing data entry.

A few years ago Larsen had a consultation for LASIK surgery, but said the doctor didn’t want to perform it; he told him people with spinal cord injuries don’t have the same blink rate. So he didn’t pursue it further.

But recently he was doing some Internet research and found an online spinal cord injury forum, where people recommended he get a second opinion. He then found Stein.

“There is no reason he should be denied,” Stein said. “Eyes are eyes. I’m not going to treat him any different than anyone else.”

Laser corrective surgery is an outpatient procedure. It requires no general anesthesia, only topical drops to numb the eye area. The entire process takes less than an hour.

“I’m excited,” Larsen said. “I can’t wait to get rid of the glasses.”

The only challenges Larsen faced the day of the surgery was maneuvering his motorized wheelchair close enough to fit his chin in a machine that measured his eyes (Clinic Director Dr. Brian Cohen helped steady Larsen’s head.), and physically getting on the surgery table (His father Paul lifted him in and out of his wheelchair.).

Once his eyes were numbed and positioned so they’d remain wide open, cutting a flap in the cornea lens to allow the laser to reshape it took only seconds. Larsen said he didn’t feel a thing.

Immediately after, Stein asked Larsen if he could read the clock on the wall, something he couldn’t have done before without glasses.

“1:20,” he answered without hesitation.

His main follow-up care is placing special eye drops for the first week, and Larsen’s older brother can help him with that. He also will wear special goggles after surgery for a week so he doesn’t rub his healing eyes or splash water in them, and wear sunglasses when outside for a few days.

Office staff asked Larsen if he wanted to run his wheelchair over his old glasses after surgery, but he had other ideas.

He is giving his brother, who also wears glasses, his old frames.

“I’m just glad I can buy a bunch of different sunglasses,” he added.

By: JO CIAVAGLIA
The Intelligencer