Giving that extra magnification to help with vision loss


Many people have not appeared to have heard of bioptic telescopes, which can help restore some vision to those with serious eyesight loss. — Freepik

Dick Bramer likes to watch birds flock outside the window of his home in the town of Scandia in Minnesota, United States.

But for two years he couldn’t see them well enough to identify the various species.

“I’ve got bird feeders and stuff out there, so that’s kind of my thing,” said the 76-year-old.

“There are all kinds of birds coming in.”

In July 2021, Dick suffered what doctors diagnosed as an ocular stroke (they said a small particle of plaque must have blocked blood flow to the optic nerve) in one eye.

He had already lost vision in his other eye decades earlier, due to what doctors said was a swollen optic nerve.

After the stroke, everything was blurry.

When he watched a football game, his wife Polly Bramer had to tell him the score and the time left, because he couldn’t see the writing on the TV screen.

He couldn’t safely do the woodworking projects he used to love.

When they went to see their grandchildren play (American) football, soccer or baseball, he couldn’t follow the games because he couldn’t see the ball.

A little-known aid

The Bramers looked everywhere for something that might help.

They went to stores catering to low-vision consumers, but found that most of the products were aids to help people function better without their vision, not improve its clarity.

Because they spend winters in the US state of Florida, they figured some of the other retirees must have heard of a solution.


Then a friend happened to tell them about Low Vision Restoration in the city of Blaine, Minnesota.

Optometrist Chris Palmer, who founded the clinic, prescribes devices that can help improve people’s vision when other glasses can’t.

Palmer fitted Dick with the devices, which are like miniature binoculars or telescopes affixed to regular glasses.

Dick tried them out and suddenly saw his wife clearly for the first time since the stroke.

“He said, ‘I can see her! I can see her face! She’s wearing a necklace!’” Polly recalled.

“And tears just came to my eyes, because he hadn’t seen it for several months.”

The devices, called bioptic telescopic glasses, can help patients resume reading, recognising faces across a room, watching TV, playing cards, and in some cases, even driving, Palmer said.

But for reasons nobody seems to be able to explain, few people have heard of them.

“They tend not to be widely utilised unfortunately,” said Coon Rapids ophthalmologist Dr Scott Peterson, who does refer patients to Palmer.

“Some people don’t know that practitioners like Dr Palmer (optometrists in the US must have a Doctor of Optometry degree, which allows them the title of “Dr”) exist, or they have a hard time finding them.”

Palmer said eye doctors “aren’t doing a great job” of referring patients who might benefit from them.

He’s not sure why.

“Almost every patient that we talk to has the same questions: ‘Why didn’t my doctor tell me?’ ‘Why haven’t I heard of this before?’” he said.

“I would say that if you asked a hundred doctors, you’d get a hundred different types of answers as to why they do or don’t tell people.”

Helping to magnify

Telescopic glasses are “basically binoculars” that affix to glasses and magnify images so that objects look bigger, closer and clearer, said Palmer, who has specialised in this area since 2008.

They resemble jewellers’ loupes.

“It’s like having a miniaturised telescope or binocular stuck right into a pair of glasses,” he said.

“They’re two individual eyepieces that you’re looking through.”

Their positioning can be adjusted as needed.

Bioptic telescopes are helpful for people with eye conditions such as macular degeneration, ocular albinism, Stargardt disease, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and rod cone dystrophy, which can reduce vision to levels too low to benefit from regular glasses and contacts.

The devices won’t help everybody with eye problems, Dr Peterson noted, “but in many cases, people can regain some level of independence, reading, the ability to perform tasks around the home”.

Another reason they’re not more widely used is that they’re expensive and generally not covered by insurance, Palmer said.

Then again, hearing aids – an analogous product in many ways – can be expensive and often aren’t covered either, but most people know about them.

Minnesota’s State Services for the Blind’s vocational rehabilitation programme offers bioptic telescopes among a number of devices it provides to help people with low vision (along with closed-circuit TVs, magnification apps and software, specialised eyeglasses, etc), said director Natasha Jerde.

The programme occasionally provides the devices for free, among other vision products, she added.

But because it’s a work programme, the items must be needed as part of a plan to get or keep a job, or advance in a career.

“We have not purchased many of these devices,” she said.

“But there have been a few unique, individualised situations where it is something a person needed, so we were able to buy it for them.”

The Bramers paid US$5,000 (RM23,970) for Dick’s – US$2,500 (RM11,985) apiece, one for distance and one for close-up.

For him, the cost was worth it.

He’s back to doing most of the things he could always do: seeing birds, football scores and his wife’s face.

He doesn’t drive, because although he can see the road, he sometimes misses objects that appear suddenly.

So walking (or letting Polly drive) is safer.

“I can still walk decent, I’ve just got to kind of know where I’m at,” he said.

“If I’m walking downtown, for instance, I just have to be aware of curbs and uneven surfaces.” – By Katy Read/Star Tribune/Tribune News Service

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Vision , eyesight , spectacles


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