Thursday March 14, 2013
A watchful eye
By LIM CHIA YING
During world glaucoma week, one should never lose sight of the condition that affects 70 million people worldwide.
ITS menacing nickname, ‘silent thief of sight’ should be an indication of its devastating potential.
Yet, glaucoma remains a disease that many may have only heard of, but ignorant on the extent of damage it can cause.
Glaucoma earned its ominous nickname because it can cause permanent blindness without any early warning signs or obvious symptoms in its victims.
It is the world’s second-largest cause of blindness, and affects more than 70 million people worldwide – a figure that is expected to rise to a shuddering 88 million by year 2020, according to the World Health Organisation.
In Malaysia alone, it is estimated that over 100,000 people have glaucoma.
Non-profit organisation Save Ones Sight Missions (SOSM) founder Stevens Chan, is himself a victim. He was diagnosed with glaucoma in 2002 –then aged 45 – and lost his eyesight five years later in 2007.
He wasn’t wearing any glasses back then, but recalled having terrible headaches and even painkillers prescribed by a doctor did not help.
“It was only later that another doctor told me I had contracted glaucoma. I was asked to undergo surgery immediately or I would become blind,” said Chan.
“The condition caught me completely unaware. Both my wife and I didn’t know what glaucoma was, and I found myself going through nine surgeries over a five-year period to control my increased eye pressure.”
Despite the surgeries to regulate the pressure, Chan became blind in both eyes.
“The fact that I could no longer see wasn’t a reality I was ready to accept. I sunk into depression for a long time. After coming out of it I decided to do something to raise greater awareness for this disease,” says Chan.
SOSM was founded in 2009 together with his wife, with the hope of reaching out to as many people – with or without visual disabilities – on the prevention of eye disorders.
Chan says his initial plan to establish a foundation was not possible as there was a requirement for a RM1mil bank balance.
“In the end though, I managed to register (SOSM) as an NGO, with the primary aim of stopping unnecessary blindness in which 80% of it is preventable.”
He cites that every year since 2009, seven million people have become visually impaired worldwide, which translates to one person every five seconds. If nothing is being done by 2020, one person will become visually impaired every second.
SOSM provides at least 50 eye health screenings annually, in addition to the 50 cataract surgeries and 250 pair of spectacles for the marginalised and needy.
SOSM also has an extension in the form of the Malaysia Glaucoma Society, which specifically addresses glaucoma.
Mar 10 to Mar 17 is also World Glaucoma Week, and the society has put together a series of events to mark it.
The first was the Run for Sight 2.0, a 5km blindfold run where participants ran in pairs. Held for the second year running at Central Park, 1 Utama on Mar 10, it was a roaring success, with overwhelming turnout of some 800 people.
The highlight of the event was an attempt to set a new Guinness World Record. 118 students from SMK Subang Utama were tied together and walked blindfolded for 50 meters, surpassing the previous record of 100 people set in China.
However, the record has to be verified before it becomes official.
If you happen to be in 1 Utama shopping mall this weekend, make your way to the Café in the Dark programme that will take place at the old wing concourse area from Mar 15 to 17.
To allow the public to experience what complete darkness is, participants will be led into a specially constructed black box by a blind guide, where they will have a cup of coffee.
Chan says that the experience will be limited to just 150 participants per day and entrance fees charged will be channelled to SOSM.
“This will allow them (the public) to capture the blind’s perceived view of an object, colour or scenery. We hope this encounter will move people to never take their eyesight for granted,” Chan says softly.
For the second year running, a Journey of Sight art exhibition will be organised at the same venue, featuring over 20 pieces of artwork.
The exhibition’s theme this year is ‘How the glaucoma patient sees this world?’. Art pieces were contributed by renowned local and foreign artists, as well as students from One Academy.
A special full eye health check will also be conducted in collaboration with the Singapore Eye Research Institute.
“There will be a nominal charge of RM50 for every screening, which will be wholly donated to our society,” adds Chan.
He says his organisation also carries out an ‘adoption programme’ for babies. Just this week, it raised funds for a 14-month-old baby to undergo surgery for glaucoma.
It is shocking to know that even toddlers could be born with, and children affected by glaucoma.
“Glaucoma has no cure and has no symptoms during the initial stages.
Most people would have lost 40% of their peripheral vision when they finally diagnosed with (glaucoma).
“It damages one’s side vision before the central part, and fighting it is a lifelong battle,” says Chan, who now moves about with a cane.
He stresses the importance of annual eye health checks by professional doctors who can detect abnormalities – especially among higher-risk groups. This include those aged 40 and above, have a family history of the disease, are frequent steroid users, have short- or long-sightedness, and are diabetics.
SOSM also organises forums, support group meetings and screenings, while selling workshops and exhibitions conducted by the visually disabled.
Asked how he is coping now – six years on – Chan admits very much that he is still “trying to get used to darkness”.
“My hope is that there’s an attitude change on people’s part, so that they show as much concern for their eyes as they would for other bodily organs,” says Chan.
> An enhanced version of this story appears in the Star's tablet edition, The Star Editor's Choice, March 13 issue which is available on free download from your app store or google play.