The scalpel slid smoothly as surgeon Stephen Scope made a tiny incision on the edge of the cornea.
After being diagnosed with developing cataracts four years ago, Hampton resident Brenda Shepherd, 62, received lens-replacement surgery to restore sight in her left eye as part of Virginia Eye Consultants' second annual "Giving Back" event in Norfolk on Thursday.
"I am so grateful. It's not like it would have gotten any better," said Shepherd, whose eyesight went through a rapid decline in the past six months. "Overnight it seemed I couldn't see at all," she said.
Last year, Virginia Eye Consultants, which has eight surgeons at locations in Hampton, Norfolk and Suffolk, performed 50 free eye surgeries for those with demonstrated need in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Its success led to another two-day bonanza for another 50 patients selected from more than 150 submissions this year. People were invited to nominate friends and family, those who are uninsured, underinsured, or unable to pay for a needed procedure. Self-nominations were also accepted.
"Several others were helped without surgery and a couple steered to the practice's research department to receive free drops for glaucoma as part of a clinical trial," said Kristin Magruder, practice development manager. The free surgeries included cataracts and glaucoma, retinal transplants and Lasik procedures.
Shepherd's sister Carolyn Weatherman submitted the online application on her behalf back in early July, when she read about the event in the newspaper.
"I was thrilled to read it. I said she was in need and had no other means to do this and had health issues and could no longer work," said Weatherman.
Shepherd falls into Virginia's coverage gap, ineligible for current Medicaid and unable to afford subsidized health insurance through the marketplace; she scrapes by on a Social Security check of little more than $600 a month. In the past her siblings have pitched in to help buy her glasses, which she has used since elementary school.
A couple of weeks ago, Virginia Eye Consultants called Shepherd to tell her she'd been selected for the "Giving Back" event and set her up with a screening appointment in the group's Hampton office. She'll return there on Friday to get a post-op check-up. Shepherd will return to the Norfolk office for a second cataract operation later this month on her right eye, which is cloudy but less severely affected than her left.
Each procedure, using the basic lens replacement, is valued at around $2,100, said Magruder. By contrast, the cost of the tissue alone for a corneal transplant is around $4,000.
"It's just wonderful what they're doing for people like my sister," said Rita Brown, who drove Shepherd to the surgery. "It's huge. She was pretty close to blind in that eye, it was very upsetting."
They spent a couple of hours at the surgery, most of it in prep time as staff started Shepherd on sedation, gave her eye drops to dilate the pupil, and marked her left eyebrow with a star and the surgeon's initial. Nurse Ester Ramos checked her dilation, monitored how she was feeling and explained what to expect.
In the operating room, one nurse held Shepherd's hand while another draped her face and she received more sedation. Scopes, performing his 16th procedure of the day — he routinely does more than 34, according to Magruder — entered, robed with help, and made the incision. His work showed up instantly in close-up on a screen in the observation room, as he inserted an instrument through the incision, moving it around the eye to break up the cloudy protein cover before vacuuming it out.
Then the most dramatic moment showed the insertion of the new acrylic lens as bright yellow spots appeared and it slowly unfolded. No patches or sutures were used, and after 10, or at most 15 minutes, it was over and Shepherd was wheeled back to recovery. There she was given post-op care instructions and a pair of dark glasses before she walked out to the parking lot with her sister.
"You have all been wonderful. Thank you," she said at every step of the way.
Salasky can be reached by phone at 757-247-4784.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun