Health & Medicine

Mission Cataract program clears foggy eyes for underinsured

Ray Nakamoto, a 66-year-old voiceover artist, got cataract surgery four years ago because his cataracts were preventing him from working. He now coaches voice students and volunteers for the Society for the Blind. He is shown at his recording studio in Sacramento on Thursday.
Ray Nakamoto, a 66-year-old voiceover artist, got cataract surgery four years ago because his cataracts were preventing him from working. He now coaches voice students and volunteers for the Society for the Blind. He is shown at his recording studio in Sacramento on Thursday. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

In 2006, throat cancer all but destroyed voiceover artist Ray Nakamoto’s ability to speak. Four years later, cataracts clawed at his left eye’s lens, making his world even harder to navigate.

“I couldn’t drive at night because headlights looked like sparklers,” he said. “I’d go into a department store and the overhead (lights) would be blurry and I couldn’t read the aisle stickers.”

Nakamoto, 66, a familiar voice in the region for his past radio work, had taken a hard financial hit following the recession and the waning of the audio industry. Lacking insurance, he muddled through his work for more than a year, magnifying wave forms on the computer screen and squinting to read radio scripts, before applying for free cataract surgery in 2011.

“My eyesight was failing,” Nakamoto said. “I had to keep my life going. … I had nowhere to turn to until I heard about (Mission Cataract). It literally saved my career.”

Mission Cataract USA is a national program, offered in the Sacramento area through Kaiser Permanente, that aims to provide free cataract surgeries to uninsured or underinsured patients who cannot afford the procedure.

Now in its 20th year in Sacramento, the Kaiser program has improved the eyesight of about 400 people. This Friday, it provided for 15 more.

Removing a cataract – a clouding of the eye’s lens that affects light perception and focus – entails lifting off the entire damaged lens and replacing it with a clear silicone one. Cataracts tend to be denser and more debilitating for patients who forgo eye care for long periods of time, said Dr. Clint McClanahan, one of four surgeons who volunteered with Mission Cataract on Friday.

Cataracts are a natural part of aging but can also result from long-term sun exposure, diabetes or smoking. The 20- to 30-minute lens removal procedure would typically cost about $5,000, the surgeon said.

McClanahan, a veteran eye surgeon with a philanthropic bent, brought the program into the Kaiser system in 1995 after reading about its Fresno launch in an ophthalmology journal. The need has been steady for the last two decades, he said, and has remained so even as more low-income patients enroll in eye care under the federal Affordable Care Act.

“We were worried that after the ACA we’d be out of a job,” he said, referring to Mission Cataract’s work. “But there are still people who get squeezed despite the ACA and still don’t have any insurance. We’ve never had any problems finding enough applicants.”

Potential patients are screened in advance and selected based on need. After the procedure at Kaiser Permanente’s eye surgery center in Rancho Cordova, patients return home and come back for a checkup the next morning. Patients must attend a follow-up eye appointment three weeks later, where they receive a pair of prescription glasses to focus their newly improved eyesight.

McClanahan, along with 80 or so personnel who volunteer for the event each year, has fixed the eyes of artists, carpenters, hair stylists and more over the past 20 years. While many of the recipients are in their 50s, most are still working and depend on the surgery to continue doing so, he said.

Jean Cayabyab, 46, said she “couldn’t see anything but pea soup,” and experienced feelings of depression and isolation after her cataracts developed in 2010. It wasn’t until 2014, when her husband heard about Mission Cataract, that she had the lens in her right eye replaced.

Because the program typically offers one eye surgery at a time, Cayabyab returned to Kaiser on Friday to have her left eye done. She is currently uninsured and unemployed, and hopes the improved eyesight will help her get a job.

“I remember they took the patch off and it was just wonderful – it was like the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” she said. The mother of four and grandmother of two was in tears on Friday as she reminisced about seeing her children clearly after her first surgery.

For Nakamoto, living without cataracts means being able to give back to the voiceover community. Once a talent featured in radio commercials, Nakamoto no longer performs but instead coaches aspiring vocalists on how to find their “money voice” and record demos for employers.

In a secluded studio full of period appliances and radio memorabilia, Nakamoto has no trouble editing his students’ recordings on his computer or reading to them from a script. As a volunteer recruiter for the Society for the Blind, he encourages his students to read to the less-sighted to practice their voiceover skills.

“Now that I’m through that program, I feel strongly about giving back to society,” Nakamoto said. “When I read for the blind, after I finished reading to them, I’d walk outside and realize the sky was blue, and realize I’d taken that for granted. There are so many things like that, that I’m just grateful for.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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