Texas native Steve Nicholson is probably one of a select few who will tell you he’s glad he flunked his vision test at the DMV.
The 57-year-old, who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes while battling cancer in 2011, is also grateful Key-Whitman Eye Center’s Kristen Leaser, Certified Ophthalmic Assistant, has a talent for setting people straight about diabetic eye disease.
“I went to get my drivers license, and they told me I needed to go see my eye doctor. When I got to Key-Whitman, Kristen told me, ‘It’s a good thing you came in, because if you stayed on the same path, and hadn’t come in, you would have lost your eyesight in 6 to 8 months.’ That’s when I found out I had a condition called diabetic retinopathy,” Nicholson explains.
Leaser didn’t sugarcoat the dire nature of his condition. “At the time, I showed him a diabetic retinopathy video on my iPad and also advised him how diabetes threatens vision. I also had the nurses check his blood sugar in the clinic that day. I was rather stern with Mr. Nicholson,” she says.
According to Key-Whitman eye doctor and retinal specialist Tom Jennings, M.D., “Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in adults ages 20 to 74 and can be asymptomatic until blindness occurs. It’s crucial for diabetic patients to see an eye doctor for a complete dilated eye exam, which is when we examine the retina for this condition and other issues pertaining to eye health.”
Nicholson suffered from the most severe form of retinopathy, which is called diabetic proliferative retinopathy. At this stage, the blood vessels in the retina become damaged, begin to close off and new, more fragile, blood vessels start to grow. “These weak vessels can burst and easily leak blood, causing severe loss of vision. They can also cause scar tissue to grow, and once the scar tissue shrinks and contracts it may detach the retina from the eye wall,” advises Dr. Jennings.
People who have diabetes are also at increased risk for glaucoma and cataracts,
two conditions Nicholson was also diagnosed with during his initial visit
to Key-Whitman. “When Mr. Nicholson first came to see us, he was
severely diabetic, had very poor vision and was not checking his blood
sugar. In fact he had severe diabetic retinopathy along with cataracts
and needed to see a retinal specialist right away, which he did,”
Nicholson admits he didn’t take his diabetes seriously. “I didn’t know I could have issues with my eyesight due to diabetes until I had my eye appointment. Before that, I never really took it seriously. I figured I had survived cancer, so I wasn’t going to worry about diabetes.”
Unfortunately, research presented this fall by Neil Bressler, M.D., editor-in-chief of JAMA Ophthalmology shows Nicholson is one of a staggering number of diabetic adults who are unaware that diabetes poses serious vision risks. During the 2014 Focus on Eye Health Summit, Dr. Bressler, who is also chief of the retina division at Wilmer Eye Institute,reported that a recent research study revealed that 83.8 percent of adults ages 40 and above who have diabetes don’t know that diabetes can affect eye health.
Nicholson says he experienced an epiphany during his conversation with Kristen. “She told it to me like it is. When they took my blood sugar, it was around 168. Kristen made it clear to me, that ‘this is what you need to do as of this minute – fruits and vegetables
– that’s all.’ Little by little I’m learning what I can eat, and what combinations of food I can eat. Cheetos and oatmeal cookies yes, chocolate cookies no,” says Nicholson.
Dr. Jennings points out diabetic patients can benefit when they are proactive about managing the disease. “When a patient presents with diabetic retinopathy, it’s usually a sign of poor blood sugar control. Many type 2 diabetics can maintain a good blood sugar through diet, exercise and by following the advice of their physicians. The good news is now more than ever, when patients receive early diagnosis and treatment, much of the vision loss related to diabetes can be prevented.”
Today, Nicholson exercises regularly, continues to fine-tune his diabetic diet and monitors his blood sugar multiple times a day. After adopting a healthier lifestyle and using an iPhone app to keep tabs on his blood sugar, he experienced an added bonus – a 23-pound weight loss.
Recently, Nicholson underwent cataract surgery, too. “I’m not a morning person, but it feels good to get up now. I feel better, I’m happier, and my quality of life has improved. And I’m still in awe after cataract surgery. Colors are so much brighter, and the world looks beautiful!”
Like many people over the age 50, Nicholson assumed his failing eyesight was simply a result of getting older, when in fact it was the result of diabetic eye disease. Nicholson hopes other people with diabetes will learn from his story and immediately take the steps to manage the disease. “If your vision is not what you think it should be, and you’re getting older, go see your eye doctor. And if you get a diabetes diagnosis, from that moment forward, follow your doctor’s advice about diet and exercise.”