Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 2, 2001Volume 29, Number 17

Jennifer Staple with the eye chart that Unite for Sight uses for its screenings.

Unite for Sight focusing attention on
importance of preserving eyesight

For Yale sophomore Jennifer Staple, giving eyeglasses to children who have never seen clearly is like handing them the world.

"It doesn't even matter if the frames don't fit perfectly," says Staple. "What matters is that someone can see."

Staple was thrilled when she collected 335 eyeglasses last semester in a campus drive sponsored by Unite for Sight, the organization she founded this fall to focus public attention on the importance of preserving sight. Through the ongoing drive, the organization is able to provide eyeglasses to people in developing countries who don't have the means to buy them.

Staple and the 25 student volunteers who have joined Unite for Sight sent the eyeglasses collected thus far to eye clinics in the developing world. Most of the eyeglasses collected during the fall were donated to countries in Africa.

"At the eye clinics, the prescriptions are tested, and then they are given to someone whose vision fits that prescription," explains Staple. "Our goal is to give them proper sight."

Helping people safeguard and enhance their vision became Staple's passion last summer, when she worked as a a clinical research assistant in an ophthalmology office. Many of the patients she met there had glaucoma, an eye disease that, if left untreated, causes blindness. Some of the patients had received treatment for the disease early enough to preserve their vision, while others had lost some or most of their sight.

"Blindness due to glaucoma is so preventable," says Staple. "Seeing people whose eyesight had deteriorated without treatment made me realize the importance of vision education for that disease and other diseases of the eyes."

Educating the public about how to protect their eyes is a main focus of Unite for Sight. In addition to the eyeglass drive, the group holds free vision screenings for children and adults. During the organization's fall screenings, Unite for Sight volunteers -- who participated in a brief training session to learn how to conduct the exams using an eye chart with shapes instead of letters -- were able to detect vision problems in several children. They then advised the children's parents to take them to an eye doctor.

"We've seen children who don't realize what the world really looks like because they've never seen it perfectly," comments Staple. "Getting glasses will 'open up their eyes' to the world. It's a good feeling to be able to help them achieve that."

This semester, Unite for Sight is expanding its public education initiatives by traveling to area preschools and community centers to conduct eye screenings and discuss the importance of eye health. Members are also developing a puppet show that explains how the eyes work and promotes eye safety, emphasizing, for example, the importance of not throwing objects at anyone's eyes. In addition, the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen in New Haven invited the group to hold screenings and educational sessions there.

"Right now, we have 13 screenings scheduled this semester," says Staple. "One of the reasons we want to visit preschools is that very few of these schools screen children for vision problems, and diagnosing such problems as cross eye or lazy eye is so critical at that age. If not detected by the age of 5, for example, lazy eye causes permanent blindness." Every year, the Yale sophomore notes, about 500,000 children become blind in one eye because of the brain malfunction that causes lazy eye. This disease is also easily treated by using an eye patch or glasses that allow the "lazy" eye to network to the brain.

Unite for Sight will also stress the importance of proper eye care in a special program for children and parents called "Eyes on New Haven." Developed by volunteers, the program includes vision screenings, educational sessions on how the eyes function and the importance of good nutrition for healthy eyes, as well as instructive and entertaining activities such as a segment on optical illusions.

"For the nutrition component, for example, we'll talk about the importance of vitamins A and C for eye health and will also talk about eating a healthy diet to prevent diabetes, which can lead to blindness," says Staple. Unite for Sight plans to offer the program every spring; this year's event will take place on March 31 in a community center near the New Haven Green. Further information on the event will be forthcoming by the end of February.

For adults, Staple and the other Yale volunteers encourage regular eye exams, including testing for glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration. In the latter disease, abnormal blood vessels damage the retina, causing a gradual loss of vision. The students also promote the regular use of sunglasses to prevent eye damage caused by the sun's ultraviolet light.

"A lot of people don't realize the importance of protecting the eyes with sunglasses, even in the winter, when the ultraviolet light reflects off snow," notes Staple. "Ultraviolet light is one of the major causes of cataracts in adults."

In addition to its own vision education programs, Unite for Sight is hosting a speaker series this semester to bring prominent scholars in the field of ophthalmology to campus to speak about eye diseases and their prevention to members of the Yale and New Haven communities. The group's first speaker, Dr. Harry Quigley, a noted expert on glaucoma, will discuss the topic "WHO Cares About Worldwide Preventive Health? The Prospects for Glaucoma Care" at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 5, in Rm. 101 of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, 63 High St. (See Visiting on Campus, page X.)

Staple's own interest in the field of ophthalmology began when she was in high school in her hometown of Newtown, Connecticut. "I've always found eyes fascinating, not only how we see but the way diseases manifest in the eyes. A lot of diseases not specifically related to the eyes, including diabetes, can be detected during a routine eye exam."

A biology major, Staple's fascination with the eyes and her newfound commitment to promoting eye health have convinced her to pursue a career as an ophthalmologist.

"Our eyes are so important, and when people lose their ability to see it's devastating," says the Yale sophomore. "Our sight is something we should treasure."

Those interested in donating eye glasses or sunglasses to Unite for Sight can leave them in designated bins in either the Sterling Memorial Library or the lobby of Kline Biology Tower. For further information about Unite for Sight programs, visit the group's website at www.uniteforsite.org or email Jennifer Staple at jennifer.staple@yale.edu.

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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