Written by Ashley M. Biggers
Photography by Donicio Madrid
New Mexico Lions Operation KidSight helps local children see clearly
Last school year on one of the eyesight screening days at Jornada Elementary, classes of pre-K, kinder, first and third graders lined up outside nurse Nicole Lucero’s office. They stepped up to the Plusoptix S09 Autorefractor, supplied by New Mexico Lions Operation KidSight (NMLOKS), and in less than a second received a print out with screening results that could prevent long-term eyesight damage or even complete sight loss in one eye
The screening is quick, non-invasive, and works even for young children for whom the traditional 20/20 eye chart isn’t useable. The screening also identifies concerns a normal screening wouldn’t. During that session, one first grader’s report indicated he may have astigmatism and provided a referral to an eye care provider. Soon, he received glasses, and returned to class and his lessons without worry.
During the 2015–16 school year, the NMLOKS screened nearly 33,000 children across the state. Its headquarters are in Las Cruces, though 24 teams are active across New Mexico. Of the 32,888 children screened, 6,015 were referred for possible vision problems that could negatively impact their ability to read and learn. Through screenings at elementary schools (including private schools) and health fairs, the program is helping turn the tide of vision problems.
Early on in its history, the Lions Club International service club adopted Helen Keller’s challenge that they be “knights of the blind.” Locally, in 1998, Lion Bill Allen of the Ruidoso Valley Noon Lions Club saw an article about a Tennessee club who had begun assessing children for risk factors that could lead to amblyopia or “lazy eye.” Doctors estimate that three to five percent of children under the age of seven have the condition, which is commonly caused by strabismus (crossed or inward turned eyes), anisometropia (different vision/prescriptions in each eye), or an eye blockage due to trauma or lid droop. These conditions can cause the good eye and brain to block or suppress the malfunctioning eye.
These conditions can be treated with glasses, contacts, Lasik, an eye patch, drops, or, in the most serious cases of strabismus, surgery. However, it’s vital to catch the condition early. “By age seven or eight, the eyes are totally developed. During vision development, if the brain is not receiving an equal and clear image from the eyes, it will turn the weaker eye off resulting in the optic nerve not developing and permanent poor vision in that eye. The primary purpose of the KidSight Program vision screenings is to identify those risk factors that can adversely impact a child’s eyes developing normally,” says Bryson McCool, secretary/treasurer of New Mexico Lions Operation KidSight.
In February 2008, the New Mexico Lions Clubs conducting screenings formed an organization, which become part of the NM Lions Eye Foundation. When the program expanded rapidly, in 2011, it decided to become a separate 501c3 organization. It opened its central office in Las Cruces in 2015 and hired Lion Brenda Dunn as the NMLOKS Program Manager. Much of the program’s support comes from Catholic Health Initiatives – St. Joseph’s Children fund. These monies have enabled them to purchase a fleet of 28 cameras—at a cost of $7,000 each—for screenings around the state.
The program also receives state funding as the contractor of the New Mexico Department of Health Save Our Children Sight Fund. Previously, the NMLOKS screened only pre-kindergarten and first graders. Under this program, they expanded support to include screenings for third and fifth graders, which New Mexico state law also requires receive eyesight inspections. When the children are referred for further care, NMLOKS pays for the appointments and glasses if insurance or Medicare doesn’t cover these items.
Last year at Jornada Elementary, NMLOKS screened 220 children; 28 were referred to providers for further investigation. “Our screenings are limited because we’re using standard eye charts. Their equipment is wonderful. They’re catching things we might not catch otherwise that will benefit the students for the rest of their school careers,” says nurse Nicole Lucero. “If it’s treated when they’re young, they have the most chance at success.”
To find out where New Mexico Operation KidSight is screening near you call 575-525-5631 or visit nmlionskidsight.com. Homeschoolers are welcome at school screenings as well.