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Ashland: Lions Club steps up for vision tests

Belinda Brown knows how difficult it can be to guide a 6-year-old through a traditional eye exam.

As the school nurse coordinator for Ashland and Talent Elementary and Talent Middle School, Brown’s been negotiating her way through five-hour, sit-still-please sessions for years. Typically, the testing at a school begins at about 8 a.m. and continues until about 1:30 p.m., and even that isn’t always enough time to squeeze in the entire student body.

There are other challenges as well. Students with special needs can be almost impossible to screen thoroughly. And the test itself has inherent loopholes that only an experienced tester is savvy enough to spot (Is the child cheating? Is he squirming because he didn’t eat breakfast, or is it because he can’t tell the difference between a “T” and a “Z” from 20 feet? Is she squinting? Turning her head?). But testing hundreds of children requires the use of volunteers, some of which are inexperienced in such matters, which means there’s always a risk that a child’s eye condition will go undetected.

So when Brown learned at a school nurses conference in Portland last spring that the Oregon Lions Sight & Hearing Foundation could, with the help of a few volunteers and its own sophisticated hardware, screen 300 children in less than two hours for a flat fee of $200 a session, she jumped at the opportunity.

This week, the Ashland School District is reaping the rewards of Brown’s assertiveness and the Lions Club’s expertise as students at Bellview, Helman and Walker Elementary Schools are being screened for six common eye defects, some of which can cause blindness if left untreated.

“Oh, it’s going to happen every year,” Brown said, nodding emphatically after the first such screening Monday at Bellview. “I love this. I cannot tell you how much easier this makes my job.”

It’s easy to see why.

Lions Club representatives, a few volunteers and four OHSU student nurses who will receive clinical hours credit for their work this week gathered in an empty room at Bellview at 8 a.m. Monday and listened to Tim Young, the Oregon Lions Sight and Hearing Foundation event coordinator, explain how the machines work. The PediaVision Spot cameras resemble a muscle-bound radar gun but with a square, coaster-sized lens and a built-in touch screen. It can do so much more than a camera, of course, but Young, standing with the device in the middle of a people circle that formed around him, completed his how-to presentation in only a few minutes.

Basically, Spot operators — there were five Monday — were instructed to position the lens about 30 to 40 inches in front of the child, move the camera slightly if necessary in order to lock on to the child's eyes and let the device work its magic. If done correctly, he explained, each child can be screened in roughly 22 seconds, each class in three to five minutes.

That’s a fraction of the time it takes to test a child’s eyesight the old-fashioned way, but it’s all that’s necessary for Spot’s 3D lens to trace, with 100 percent accuracy (according to a test conducted by PediaVision), potential indicators of some of the most common vision problems, including: myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), astigmatism (blurred vision), anisometropia, strabismus and anisocoria.

“First of all, it takes a visual image of the eye, but that’s just for reference,” said Young, who’s an employee of the Lions Club Sight and Hearing Foundation in Portland but lives in Brookings. “The power is in its very, very low laser, and it actually judges the shape of your outside lens and there’s also an inside lens that it tests. It also kind of follows the path of the light going to the back of the eye. That’s how it checks to see if everything is working properly.”

All this is accomplished in a matter of seconds, which, as anybody who’s ever asked a child to sit still understands, makes the camera’s $10,000 price tag seem like a steal.

The freshly-trained OHSU student nurses worked their way through a steady stream of fidgety first-through-fifth graders Monday like old pros, asking the children to sit up, stay still, then “got it.” Young predicted “controlled chaos,” but once the students started filing in and lining up behind the bright orange traffic cones the whole operation sped along without a hitch.

Afterward, Brown was happy to report that it took barely an hour for every student present on Monday — about 300, including all but one special-needs child — to be screened.

Once the screening is complete, the data, which is automatically transformed into a PDF file, is uploaded wirelessly to a computer and sent to the Foundation’s center in Portland for processing. All the necessary forms for each child are then printed out and sent back to the school. Most students pass, but for those whose test reveals a potential problem, a referral recommending a more detailed eye exam is sent home to the parents.

All of that was previously handled, manually, laboriously, by Brown, who estimates that she spent roughly 10 to 15 hours per school wading through mountains of follow-up paper work. Now, she’ll be receiving a computer-generated report and simply passing on the information to parents. Plus, she said, “there is no way that this is not going to be more accurate.”

There are other perks.

If the family of a child can’t afford an eye exam, explains Young, the Lions Club will cover the cost of the exam and, if necessary, glasses. This is handled free of charge, no questions asked.

“You could be a billionaire or you can be penniless and we don’t care,” Young said. “We don’t ask about financial constrictions because we want children to have glasses. So we get glasses. As long as the parents say, ‘go,’ we set up an eye exam.”

According to their websites, the Oregon Lions Sight and Hearing Foundation and the Southern Oregon Lions Sight and Hearing assistance programs are open to any residents of any age with an income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

For more information on Oregon Lions Sight & Hearing Foundation eligibility requirements, go to its website at www.olshf.org or www.sightforstudents.org.