Article Date: 11/1/2001

REFLECTIONS:THE HUMAN SIDE OF OPTOMETRY
Calls of Thanks
One brief exam leads to a lasting memory.
BY JEANNENE L. DIETER, O.D.

One day, Mr. Ellis Johnson rolled into my office outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. And I do mean "rolled." An elderly wheelchair-bound double amputee, Mr. Johnson had lost his legs some years earlier to complications from diabetes. He said he was having trouble seeing and asked if I could help.

I wasn't busy and did the exam on the spot. Mr. Johnson didn't have Medicare or Medicaid coverage. He had Veterans Administration benefits but there was no facility nearby. I said we'd worry about the bill later.

My exam revealed reduced vision from proliferative diabetic retinopathy, which required urgent treatment. I explained my findings to Mr. Johnson and told him that eyeglasses wouldn't help his condition, but I offered him counseling and education.

I also found an ophthalmologist who would treat him promptly and work out a payment plan. I waived my own fee.

I discovered that the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center would treat him free of charge if needed, so I arranged transportation for the 1-hour drive to the center. Mr. Johnson was grateful and appreciative.

Every so often, I got reports from Wake Forest saying that they had treated and stabilized Mr. Johnson in hopes of preserving his remaining vision. But I never examined Mr. Johnson again.

Staying in touch

I did continue to hear from him, though. He'd phone me after his Wake Forest visits to tell me how much he liked his doctors and how grateful he was for my care and referral.

But that wasn't the end of his calls. He began to call me on every holiday to thank me. Sometimes I spoke to him; sometimes my staff took the message.

The calls were brief, but we always looked forward to them. He was always polite and friendly and never showed signs of self-pity or depression.

He'd call on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Year's and more. If the holiday fell on a weekend, I'd get his call before the end of office hours on Friday. On Mother's Day, I told him I wasn't a mother, but he said he just wanted to thank me and wish me a great day.

On Father's Day, I got smart and called him first. I discovered he was a widower with grown children, all of whom had moved away. He spent much of his time watching TV and he was active in his church. He squealed with glee at getting my call, which took 30 seconds of my time and warmed my heart the rest of the day.

Shocking news

One day several months later, after a "Happy Fourth of July" phone call from Mr. Johnson, I got home from work and flipped on the TV to the local news. A disabled man had been found murdered in his home in a suspected robbery. To my horror, a photograph of Mr. Johnson flashed on the screen.

I was shocked and devastated by the news. How could anyone assault a wheelchair-bound elderly man who had no legs? I was so moved by the untimely death of this kind, elderly man that I attended his funeral the following week.

Lasting gift

Shortly after the funeral, I relocated to Florida. I never found out if Mr. Johnson's case was solved and justice served, but rarely does a holiday go by that I don't think of him and smile at how he touched my life -- all because of one eye exam. 

DO YOU HAVE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE? CONTACT NANCI KULIG AT (215) 643-8141 OR KULIGNA@BOUCHER1.COM, SO WE CAN TALK ABOUT GETTING YOUR STORY PUBLISHED.


Optometric Management, Issue: November 2001