In his 14 years of providing free eye exams for the homeless and volunteering at the Helping Up Mission, Dr. Anthony Kameen had never seen a situation like that of 47-year-old Anthony Curtis.
Curtis was like many men at the Baltimore shelter — homeless, drug addicted and looking for support in completing the organization's 12-step recovery program.
When Kameen called in Curtis, the homeless man navigated to the exam room by placing his hands on the walls as he walked.
"Anthony couldn't see me at all," said Kameen, who gives eye exams at the Helping Up Mission twice a month. "I thought immediately he must have some awful eye disease like glaucoma, cataracts or diabetes."
Curtis did not have an eye disease, but he did have severe hereditary nearsightedness, a condition he had suffered with for most of his life. It was impossible for him to see anything more than six inches away. He once wore contact lenses, but addiction kept him from being able to afford them.
Nearly blind, Curtis went several years without the benefit of any measures to correct his vision before walking into the Helping Up Mission exam room.
Kameen, an ophthalmologist from Kameen Eye Associates in Towson who regularly performs LASIK eye surgery, said he was amazed Curtis survived on the streets in his condition.
"We gave him glasses, but they were about a foot thick," Kameen said. "I thought to myself, 'I can fix his eye with this laser so he won't need glasses or contacts. I can set him free.'"
Kameen estimates he and another eye doctor at Helping Up Mission examine 300 to 500 people a year and have treated nearly 100 severe eye conditions. Meanwhile in his practice, he has performed more than 60,000 LASIK procedures. None of the situations of patients, however, were comparable to that of Curtis.
The surgeon had to help Curtis in a way that didn't result in other recovering patients at Helping Up Mission concluding someone was receiving special treatment.
Kameen talked with the organization's program directors and pastors and they agreed Curtis could receive corrective LASIK surgery, but there was a catch. Curtis would have to wait until he finished the recovery program.
"I was six months into the program when we made that deal about getting the surgery," Curtis said. "I really didn't think about it much because I was focused on completing recovery."
Curtis completed the year-long therapeutic program on Feb. 8. He quit smoking, moved into a place with his girlfriend, earned his GED and got a job as a member of the dietary staff at the University of Maryland. His graduation marked a turning point after years of hardship and adversity. More importantly, it represented a new chance at life.
"I tried to graduate from Helping Up Mission before but failed," he said. "This time, I took a hard look at the reasons why I was involved in actions and behaviors that were tearing me down. It was not all about drugs and alcohol. It was little things. But, my life is now turned around. I cannot let myself or the people around me down, like Dr. Kameen, that worked so hard to help me accomplish my first set of goals."
As his reward to Curtis for completing the program, Kameen performed and paid all fees for the LASIK operation. He said Curtis now has 20/20 vision without glasses and he has been "truly reborn" over the past year.
Curtis is trying to obtain his driver's license. He also is focused on a lifestyle that allows him to "keep doing what I've been doing" to maintain sobriety.
"I feel that there is nothing that I cannot accomplish," Curtis said. "I have a new mission in life: to get a great job and, someday, open up my own business. I woke up the other day and could not believe how well I was seeing. It has still not sunken in."
Kameen said he and Curtis keep in touch and saw each other about a month ago.
"The neat thing was that he saw me from about 50 yards away," the eye surgeon said. "It was a powerful moment because he wasn't leaning on walls for movement any more. It was a privilege for me to give him that gift."