Harford man has vision restored in surgery done for free by doctors HARFORD COUNTY

April 16, 1993|By Victor Paul Alvarez | Victor Paul Alvarez,Contributing Writer

John Sparks spent two years in a world of shadows.

People became amorphous silhouettes, and sources of light took on a blurred, yellow haze. With a touch of sight left in his eyes, he would look to the sky and see two moons. After his car crossed a median strip and nearly collided with a tractor trailer, he gave up driving and gradually resigned himself to a world of darkness.

He was blind -- severe cataracts began stealing away his sight in 1991 -- but now he can see.

He found his miracle at a place whose ultra-modern architecture resembles a spacecraft, the Hirsch Eye Group's Havre de Grace offices.

There, inside a lobby, stands a lifelike statue of a man with moving eyes. It provides a fitting symbol -- and one Mr. Sparks would never have seen but for the Hirsch Eye Group's "Sight For Life" program.

Lacking medical insurance and too young for Medicare, the Forest Hill 54-year-old says, he couldn't afford the $1,400 for a cataract operation to restore his sight and would have remained legally blind unless Sight for Life performed surgery last month free of charge.

"I used to feel like that statue over there," says Mr. Sparks. "All I could do was stand around."

Now, though, he gives thanks for what he once took for granted.

"I can't wait to get behind the wheel of a car again," he exclaims, sounding a bit like a giddy 16-year-old.

He savors a brightness and a texture to colors that he never saw before losing his sight and fondly recalls seeing his 2-year-old grandchild for the first time.

"I spent two years down, couldn't read or drive or do anything," says Mr. Sparks. "It was like living behind a white window blind all the time. Now all of a sudden, I'm awake again."

Sight for Life, which has offered free screenings and lectures on vision impairments since 1988, began providing free cataract surgery last month to those without health insurance.

Mr. Sparks and five other patients with less-severe cataracts underwent surgery as part of the program.

Dr. Dahlia Hirsch and Dr. Donna Booth performed the operations at the Special Procedures Center of Harford Memorial Hospital.

The hospital waived outpatient fees, and Dr. Peter Kang, chief of anesthesia, donated his department's services. The Community Outreach Center, Lions Clubs, the Women's Resource Center, the American Association of Retired Persons of Havre de Grace and many local churches aided the effort by publicizing the program and arranging for transportation.

Dr. Hirsch founded Sight for Life in 1988 to help prevent unnecessary blindness in Harford and Cecil counties.

She says she took inspiration from her father, Havre de Grace Mayor Gunther Hirsch. Noticing a lack of activities for area children in the late 1950s, he personally financed a recreation center, annual art show and a visit by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for which he hired buses to transport the children.

"He used to tell me that the American people are the most generous people in the world," remembers Dr. Hirsch.

Today, like her father, Dr. Dahlia Hirsch tries to do her part for the less-fortunate -- by opening their eyes to the world.

"There is no price you can put on having a purpose in the world," she says.

The eradication of curable cataracts is one of the Sight for Life program's primary purposes.

Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss among adults age 55 and over, afflicting more than 6 million Americans. They result in a clouding of the crystalline lens of the eye that is responsible for focusing light and producing sharp, clear images. What remains is a circular clump of skin-like tissue, resembling a tiny white saucer, resting over the lens.

It's an affliction that Mr. Sparks likens to "being behind a locked door."

For Mr. Sparks, the door opened after a half hour of surgery, and he awoke to the sight of a technician removing the bandage from his right eye.

Soon Dr. Hirsch will perform a second operation on Mr. Sparks' left eye.

In the eye center's lobby, where patients trade stories of milking cows and waking with the roosters on Harford farms, Mr. Sparks' wife, Virginia, smiles at her teen-age sweetheart.

"I think it's just wonderful," she says of his restored sight. "He was so crabby for the past two years."

Mr. Sparks nods.

"I would have went crazy without her," he says.

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