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Saving Her Sight

Early detection of glaucoma preserved one woman's vision

FRIDAY, Jan. 16, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Jacquiline Underwood was eager to undergo laser vision correction to remedy her nearsightedness. But during the routine exam to see if she was a good candidate for the procedure, she got some startling news.

At age 39, Underwood was told she had glaucoma, an eye disease that can damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss and even blindness.

Luckily, she was diagnosed in the early stages. With continued use of the eye drops that are often prescribed, she hopes she can keep any further damage to the optic nerve at bay.

About 3 million Americans have glaucoma, but many are unaware that they do. At first, the disease can have no symptoms and vision seems normal. There's also no pain. But as the condition progresses, peripheral vision may decline. In time, without treatment, straight-ahead vision may decrease, too.

Glaucoma is most often caused by the buildup of fluid in the eye. In a normal eye, fluid cycles through continuously, nourishing the pupil, lens, iris and other essential components. However, if the drainage passage is clogged, the fluid builds up, increasing pressure in the eye that could damage the optic nerve.

When the optic nerve is damaged, vision loss can occur. So controlling the pressure within the eye, called intraocular pressure, is crucial.

Another type of glaucoma, called low-tension or normal-tension glaucoma, can also damage the optic nerve even though there's no elevated pressure within the eye.

Underwood's pressure was up, but her eye specialist told her they had caught the disease in time. Still, she must administer eye drops three times a day to control the pressure.

"I don't feel like I've experienced any vision loss, " says Underwood, who lives in Gary, Ind., and works as a talk show host on an Internet-based radio station and is also a poet and a performance artist. She's also completing work on her associate of arts degree.

She has taken to heart the words of her doctor, who told her, "When people lose their vision, it's because they don't follow the [eye drop] regimen."

She acknowledges it's difficult, given her schedule, to remember every single dose of eye drops. "Sometimes I forget," she says. But the consequence of not taking the medicine on time is a constant prod. "It is on my mind every minute of the day that I could go blind some day, if I don't take these drops."

She has also learned to put those fears in perspective. "There should be no problems," Underwood says, if she keeps to her medication regimen.

While anyone can get glaucoma, blacks over age 40 are at higher risk, according to the National Eye Institute, as well as anyone over age 60 and those with a family history of the disease.

Underwood is black, and her younger sister has been diagnosed with glaucoma, too.

So grateful that her disease was caught early, Underwood volunteers for the Glaucoma Research Foundation. She helps to spread the word about early detection by playing public service announcements on her radio show and speaking at health education events.

She often talks about "how important it is to take care of your sight."

SOURCE: Jacquiline Underwood, Gary, Ind.
Consumer News