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Nonprofits help homeless man gain vision

SALEM, Ore.  — Alexander Miller started wearing glasses when he was 3, but his vision loss was so severe that doctors told him he eventually would go blind.

When he last had his eyes examined five years ago, he was told he would be legally blind in five to seven years.

That prognosis turned out not to be true.

Now 30, Miller this summer got the correct eye exam and prescription that would restore his eyesight to near normal. This life-changing event came about after being referred to local Salem nonprofit agencies.

Miller is extremely nearsighted, meaning he can see only about 6 inches in front of his face without glasses, and has an astigmatism, which causes blurred vision. He compares is his vision to the glass maze in a carnival fun house:

"So you bump into walls a lot," Miller said. "And even though you might be able to see a shape over there, you can't get to it because you can't find your way over to it because you keep hitting walls. (My vision is) kind of like that, but with a fog machine or a smoke machine flooding that place, too, making it extra hard to see 'cause it's just foggy. It's fuzzy."

Experts recommend annual eye exams, but until this summer Miller had worn the same pair of glasses for five years. The lenses were deeply scratched and pitted. Because Miller can see only close-up things clearly, those flaws were difficult to ignore.

With his old glasses, Miller couldn't read past the top two lines on an eye exam chart — and the first line of the chart is one giant letter.

In June, one of his lenses fell out of his glasses while he was swimming in the Little North Santiam River.

He couldn't afford to replace it. He was living on Supplemental Security Income and had recently started living in a field near some railroad tracks.

Marja Byers, a family friend, suggested he ask the Lions Club for help since they're internationally known for helping people get glasses. His mom also encouraged that he seek help, but Miller didn't want to take charity so he got an eye patch and made it work as best he could.

A month later, Miller lost his second lens.

He was functionally blind. He was living in a friend's trailer. He was at his wits' end.

A friend took him to Byers. Since she was the executive director of Blindskills, a Salem-based nonprofit that helps visually impaired people, he knew she would know what to do.

They tried looking for the lens in his trailer, to no avail. When Byers returned to work the next week, she called Betty Levenhagen, the sight and hearing chairperson of the Salem Downtown Lions Club.

The Lions Club was able to pay for Miller's discounted $25 exam through their Lions Eyeglass Assistance Program. Last year, the club paid for 51 eye exams or glasses through the program, Levenhagen said.

Through her work with Northwest Human Services, Levenhagen knew that Miller might qualify for the nonprofit's program that buys glasses for those experiencing homelessness.

Both programs send recipients to LensCrafters and Eye Focus Northwest, an independent optometrist office inside the store.

A day after calling Levenhagen, Byers took Miller to get his eyes examined at Eye Focus. Byers was impressed with optometrist Mark Fast and his knowledge of vision impairments.

"No one has ever corrected him that well," Byers said.

Fast used a machine to measure Miller's eye health that Miller had never seen before. Fast told him that he did have low vision, but he saw no evidence Miller would become legally blind.

How Miller had lived his entire life mistakenly thinking he was going blind is unclear. Was he previously misdiagnosed? Did he and his family misunderstand what they were told?

Fast said he doesn't know if other doctors made a mistake or if new technology has made a difference. When it comes to vision, there are norms people are expected to hit as they age. When Miller was young, it's possible that since his vision was so far off of what most children experience, someone may have predicted he would become so nearsighted that he would be legally blind.

Miller and his family thought his vision was as corrected as it could be.

Fast was able to correct Miller's vision so well that with half-inch-thick lenses, his vision is 20/30.

With 20/30 vision, Miller can see well enough to qualify for a driver's license, something he was told he would never be able to do.

"He's so elated having better vision than he ever thought was possible," Byers said. "Every time I see him now, he's smiling."