A camera that sees inside the eyes of premature infants will help physicians make sure the babies don't grow up blind.

A camera that sees inside the eyes of premature infants will help physicians make sure the babies don't grow up blind.

Early babies are vulnerable to a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow and spread across the retina, the tissue that lines the back of the eye. The abnormal blood vessels can leak and scar the retina or pull it out of its proper position. Retinal detachment can impair vision or even lead to blindness.

Physicians examine premature babies' eyes regularly to make sure they're developing properly. For years they looked inside the eye with traditional instruments and made drawings of the developing blood vessels after each exam. The new retina camera acquired by Rogue Valley Medical Center provides more detailed pictures of the infants' retinas, and the images can be sent to other physicians who can help determine a course of treatment, said Dr. Yujen Wang, a Medford ophthalmologist who examines the eyes of infants in RVMC's neonatal intensive care unit.

"If I see something suspicious, I can send (the images) to OHSU (Oregon Health & Science University), or Stanford, or San Francisco, or UC Davis," said Wang, who has been examining NICU patients' tiny eyes for the past six years.

Physicians can stop the abnormal retinal development with lasers or cryosurgery. Both treatments remove the damaged periphery of the retina, which slows or halts the abnormal growth. The child may have limited peripheral vision, but the treatment saves the core central vision that's needed for everyday life.

"It's better than going blind," Wang said.

Wang said the camera will help NICU staff make the exam less stressful for the tiny infants because it will allow for more flexibility in scheduling. Wang has been doing the exams when he can find a break in his private practice, but nurses eventually will learn how to use the equipment so they can do the exam when it's best for the baby and forward the images to Wang for evaluation.

Timing is important because the baby's eyes have to be held open with tiny retractors while the camera looks inside. Even under the best conditions, the exam is intrusive, and a tired or hungry baby increases the stress level for everyone involved, said Tracy Ritchie, a neonatal nurse practitioner in the NICU.

"We numb the eye, and give them eye drops to dilate it, but it still isn't pleasant for them," Ritchie said. "Our goal is to do the exam with our team, so (Wang) won't have to come in and do them."

Funds for purchasing the $106,000 camera came from the Gwladys and John Zurlo Charitable Foundation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that supports health care for children.

Greensprings resident Bob Given is the foundation administrator. He has some latitude to spend relatively small sums on local health care initiatives, and he asked the RVMC Foundation whether there might be something the Zurlo foundation could help with.

"They really had a need for (the retina camera) and we thought it was a really good purpose," Given said. "We decided we wanted to fund pediatrics in the local community where we spend all our time."

Wang said he is doing more eye exams on premature babies than when he started six years ago. Advances in treatment have allowed more premature babies to survive, and in vitro fertilizations have increased the number of multiple births and premature deliveries.

"When I first came, I was seeing one or two a month," he said. "Now it seems every week there are two or three."

About one in every 11 babies in Jackson County is born before full term, according to data collected by the March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization founded in 1938 to fight the polio epidemic. Babies born before 31 weeks of gestation (full term is 38 to 42 weeks) with a weight of less than 23/4 pounds are especially vulnerable to retinopathy of prematurity.

The NICU treated 279 babies in 2007. Of those, 56 needed exams for retinopathy of prematurity.

Little Saige Storns, born 101/2; weeks early on July 15, was one of the first babies to get the benefits of the camera. Wang examined Saige's eyes and told her mother, Jessica Maxwell, that they were developing just fine.

That was a huge relief, Maxwell said. "There's so much to worry about when they're born so small."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.