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How a Failed DMV Eye Test Prevented One Man From Going Blind and Taught Him to Take Diabetes Seriously

Texas native Steve Nicholson is probably one of a select few who will tell
you he’s glad he flunked his vision test at the DMV.

The 57-year-old, who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes while battling
cancer in 2011, is also grateful Key-Whitman Eye Center’s Kristen
Leaser, Certified Ophthalmic Assistant, has a talent for setting people
straight about diabetic eye disease.

“I went to get my drivers license, and they told me I needed to go
see my eye doctor. When I got to Key-Whitman, Kristen told me, ‘It’s
a good thing you came in, because if you stayed on the same path, and
hadn’t come in, you would have lost your eyesight in 6 to 8 months.’
That’s when I found out I had a condition called diabetic retinopathy,”
Nicholson explains.

Leaser didn’t sugarcoat the dire nature of his condition. “At
the time, I showed him a diabetic retinopathy video on my iPad and also
advised him how diabetes threatens vision. I also had the nurses check
his blood sugar in the clinic that day. I was rather stern with Mr. Nicholson,” she says.

Diabetic retinopathy can cause serious vision problems and blindness

According to Key-Whitman eye doctor and retinal specialist Tom Jennings,
M.D., “Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in
adults ages 20 to 74 and can be asymptomatic until blindness occurs. It’s
crucial for diabetic patients to see an eye doctor for a complete dilated
eye exam, which is when we examine the retina for this condition and other
issues pertaining to eye health.”

Nicholson suffered from the most severe form of retinopathy, which is called
diabetic proliferative retinopathy. At this stage, the blood vessels in
the retina become damaged, begin to close off and new, more fragile, blood
vessels start to grow. “These weak vessels can burst and easily
leak blood, causing severe loss of vision. They can also cause scar tissue
to grow, and once the scar tissue shrinks and contracts it may detach
the retina from the eye wall,” advises Dr. Jennings.

People who have diabetes are also at increased risk for glaucoma and cataracts,
two conditions Nicholson was also diagnosed with during his initial visit
to Key-Whitman. “When Mr. Nicholson first came to see us, he was
severely diabetic, had very poor vision and was not checking his blood
sugar. In fact he had severe diabetic retinopathy along with cataracts
and needed to see a retinal specialist right away, which he did,”
Leaser says.

A vast number of diabetics are unaware of eye health risks

Nicholson admits he didn’t take his diabetes seriously. “I
didn’t know I could have issues with my eyesight due to diabetes
until I had my eye appointment. Before that, I never really took it seriously.
I figured I had survived cancer, so I wasn’t going to worry about
diabetes.”

Unfortunately, research presented this fall by Neil Bressler, M.D., editor-in-chief of
JAMA Ophthalmology shows Nicholson is one of a staggering number of diabetic adults who are
unaware that diabetes poses serious vision risks. During the 2014 Focus
on Eye Health Summit, Dr. Bressler, who is also chief of the retina division
at Wilmer Eye Institute,reported that a recent research study revealed
that 83.8 percent of adults ages 40 and above who have diabetes don’t
know that diabetes can affect eye health.

An epiphany helped turn things around for Steve Nicholson

Nicholson says he experienced an epiphany during his conversation with
Kristen. “She told it to me like it is. When they took my blood
sugar, it was around 168. Kristen made it clear to me, that ‘this
is what you need to do as of this minute – fruits and vegetables
– that’s all.’ Little by little I’m learning what
I can eat, and what combinations of food I can eat. Cheetos and oatmeal
cookies yes, chocolate cookies no,” says Nicholson.

Dr. Jennings points out diabetic patients can benefit when they are proactive
about managing the disease. “When a patient presents with diabetic
retinopathy, it’s usually a sign of poor blood sugar control. Many
type 2 diabetics can maintain a good blood sugar through diet, exercise
and by following the advice of their physicians. The good news is now
more than ever, when patients receive early diagnosis and treatment, much
of the vision loss related to diabetes can be prevented.”

Today, Nicholson exercises regularly, continues to fine-tune his diabetic
diet and monitors his blood sugar multiple times a day. After adopting
a healthier lifestyle and using an iPhone app to keep tabs on his blood
sugar, he experienced an added bonus – a 23-pound weight loss.

Recently, Nicholson underwent cataract surgery, too. “I’m not
a morning person, but it feels good to get up now. I feel better, I’m
happier, and my quality of life has improved. And I’m still in awe
after cataract surgery. Colors are so much brighter, and the world looks
beautiful!”

Wise advice from someone who learned the hard way

Like many people over the age 50, Nicholson assumed his failing eyesight
was simply a result of getting older, when in fact it was the result of
diabetic eye disease. Nicholson hopes other people with diabetes will
learn from his story and immediately take the steps to manage the disease.
“If your vision is not what you think it should be, and you’re
getting older, go see your eye doctor. And if you get a diabetes diagnosis,
from that moment forward, follow your doctor’s advice about diet
and exercise.”

Posted in: Diabetes

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