A path out of darkness

05/11/2013 12:00 AM

05/11/2013 8:16 AM

The world of Miguel Armando Rodriguez was plunged into darkness and shadow last year when he had to quit his job doing maintenance at Yolo County Housing because of cataracts.

"I was working on roofs and I was afraid I would fall because I couldn't see when I stepped off the ladder," Rodriguez said. "I quit my job because I just couldn't see anymore."

In the past year, the 59-year-old West Sacramento man has been offered five jobs but couldn't take them because his vision. "I'm at home, feeling frustrated that I can't do anything," he said. "I feel like I'm in a jail."

But on Friday, Rodriguez, the father of two daughters and a U.S. citizen who emigrated from El Salvador, got part of his vision back when he underwent cataract surgery on his right eye at the Kaiser Permanente Eye Surgery Center in Rancho Cordova. He was one of 17 patients who received the free service though the Mission Cataract USA program.

"It's a chance to do something and affect their life in a positive way," said Clint McClanahan, chief of ophthalmology for Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Sacramento, who founded the program 18 years ago and operated on Rodriguez on Friday.

Through Mission Cataract USA, free cataract surgery is offered to patients who have no medical insurance, meet the income guidelines – income cannot be above 200 percent of the poverty level – and have severe cataracts.

Cataracts form when the lens of the eye starts to cloud up as people age. The condition reduces vision and sometimes leads to blindness. In cataract surgery, the lens of the eye is removed – by ultrasound at Kaiser Permanente Sacramento – and an artificial lens is inserted. The entire procedure, which is performed with local anesthesia, takes 20 to 30 minutes.

Since 1995, nearly 400 people have participated in the Kaiser program, many of them repeat patients.

Rodriguez had started losing his eyesight in 2008, when he was working as a foreman for a construction company in Los Angeles. But it wasn't enough to prevent him from doing his job. After the company closed in 2009, he moved to West Sacramento, where his brother lives, and landed a part-time job with Yolo County Housing. He would clean apartments, work on landscaping, and perform general maintenance.

But in 2011, "my right eye started closing," he said. The sun and fluorescent lights started bothering him, appearing as white flashes, so he started wearing sunglasses indoors and out.

Last year, he applied for Medi-Cal and was diagnosed as having cataracts.

He was scheduled to have surgery on both eyes last year through Medi-Cal, but the day before the operation, he was told that he didn't qualify for the procedure because his wife, Ana Rodriguez, 52, made $1,000 a month, which put him above the income threshold. If he wanted to proceed with the surgery, he would have to pay $5,200 in cash – money he did not have.

"I was sad because I wanted to get my eyesight back," he said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.

His vision got progressively worse – he went blind in his right eye and could see only movement and vague shapes with his left eye. He could no longer drive his green 1998 Mazda pickup truck, read the Bible or watch any of his favorite programs on the Christian Broadcasting Network or Univision. His family stopped going out because of his limited vision.

Finally, last August, he had to quit his job, and stayed at home while his wife made minimum wage assembling window coverings at a factory in West Sacramento.

The role reversal upset him, especially after his older daughter, Merlee, 22, also began working to help pay the family bills.

"I want to work," said Rodriguez, who spends much of his day trying to do simple chores, like vacuuming the house and washing dishes.

Rodriguez didn't have much hope until February, when Araceli Rodriguez, a fellow church member at Calvary Christian Center who is not related to him, had cataract surgery scheduled at Kaiser and asked staff if there was anything that could help someone like him.

That was how Miguel Rodriguez learned about Mission Cataract USA.

On Friday, he was feeling a bit anxious before the surgery, which took about 45 minutes – longer than usual because of the density of the cataract.

"That's the densest cataract I've encountered in 22 years," McClanahan said afterward. "It's like having a brown M&M in the eye."

The thickness of the cataract meant that a larger opening had to be made in the eye, which then had to be stitched up. But after the surgery, while he was sipping a 7-Up, Rodriguez was optimistic about his prospects.

"My hope is to be born again," he said. "To be able to see, to be able to read, and to have a normal life with my family."

For more information on Mission Cataract USA, go to its website: www.missioncataractusa.org.

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