Cath Gray knows it’s a wonderful world – as the song goes.
Now she’s helping share that world with children who didn’t realise trees are not only green but have leaves – and blades of grass help make up all the blur of green they see.
Cath (pictured above with other specialists on the team) is orthoptic services manager at Blackpool Victoria Hospital – the team leading (with colleagues in East Lancashire) on eye screening of four and five year olds across the whole of Lancashire.
The ambitious programme is held up as a model for the rest of Britain. There are calls for it to be rolled out across the country to end what critics call the postcode lottery.
Cath explains: “It’s an orthoptic-led service to a consistent national guideline level and we’re already seeing great results. It’s something to be proud of.”
Fourteen thousand children of reception age in school – home tutored or out of schooled – are being screened for vision development disorders.
The most often detected is amblyopia – lazy eye. And it can be easily corrected IF caught early when eye drops, glasses, patches can strengthen the weaker eye.
Cath reckons the detection rate is between eight and 12 per cent. “We’re screening around 95 per cent.”
She adds: It’s so worth it. If I went into a class of 30 at least three and possibly as many as five would need further attention – although that could include some false positives.”
The team – who love their work and are loved in turn by the youngsters – are also detecting double vision or high astigmatism, squint.
Cath adds: “The thing is it’s their ‘normal’. They don’t know they are seeing life differently to the rest of us. Some may see two of everything. Others go under the radar because they cope well with good vision in one eye. Parents don’t know. If they asked children to cover up one eye at home and read something the children would just cheat and peep!
“Best of all we’ve had children say they never knew grass was made up of different blades, there are cracks in the pavement, they never knew a tree was made up of leaves.
“Even the youngest will say mummy, my eyes aren’t blurry any more. The most telling things are the cuddles. I couldn’t get into one class yesterday for the cuddles!
“Parents really notice the improvement in their children’s vision.
“One parent said thank goodness you’re going into schools and doing this. Her little boy had quite high astigmatism, he’s still getting used to his glasses.
“There have been a few children with behavioural issues and, funnily enough, once they get their glasses they don’t get bored or live in a little blurred bubble any more. They’re not naughty they just can’t see properly so get bored and will do their own thing.”
Referrals of younger and older children come direct from high street optometrists/opticians, paediatricians, GPs, school nurses, health visitors.
As National Eye Health Week comes to an end it's time to applaud the visionaries doing their utmost to improve outcomes through much earlier intervention - at an age when it can make the world of a difference to not just how or what a child sees but their engagement in education and with those around them.
“We see around 700 children a month. And anyone is welcome to walk through these doors and ask for advice and information.
“It doesn’t have to be scary or invasive. One boy, who’s 11, has double vision – he didn’t realise it. It wouldn’t have been picked up by screening either because his two eyes were working - but didn’t like working together. He saw two of everything. That was his normal. He assumed we all saw like that. His mum used to read with him and he was fine. Now he wears prisms and he has twigged what clear vision is.”
Cath urges parents to get their children’s eyes tested at high street opticians or ask their GP for help if they think something is amiss.
“It’s NHS funded so won’t cost you a penny yet could really help your child’s sight and their quality of life. That's not just a message for Eye Health Week - but every week.
“Glasses are great these days, optometrists access really fabulous frames and that plays a huge part in compliance for us – because children are happy to wear them.
“A lot are happy to wear the eye patches too because they look like pirates – we have Pirates of the Caribbean to thank for that.”
Cath also pays tribute to local charity N-Vision, the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Society for the Blind, which already works with 2500 clients who are severely sight impaired (blind) or partially sighted.
The charity's eye clinic liaison officer Linda Sethi splits her time between the society and the hospital - assisting where needed.
Linda steps in to help those wondering "what next?" - and that questions spans the age range.
Cath explains: “Orthoptic is mostly paediatrics – 70 to 80 per cent of those we see are children.
“However, we come into contact with stroke patents, anyone with a visual field defect, glaucoma, macular issues, neurogenic. The list is endless.
“Linda is now across it all. Her gentle professionalism is invaluable. The patient feels they don’t just have a health person looking out for them but someone who understands the social implications.
“We used to feel out of our depth when patients left hospital before, after we had introduced them to their limitations came the shock, the social impact. I remember one lady desperately upset because she couldn’t walk her dog any more. Things you take for granted hurt the most.
“Linda guides them through. And she always responds – patients need an immediate response, they are not comfortable with being left a few weeks.”
It’s a measure of respect that Linda, who divides her time between charity and hospital, attends the ophthalmology department’s directorate meetings – as the voice of patients.
As one patient puts it: “It’s not like you go in one door, get certified blind, and leave with a guide dog or white stick or long cane, a blue badge for your partner, benefits to take over from where your earnings left off. You’re in the dark in every sense. Linda’s a guiding light.”
As an allied health professional working alongside doctors and nurses Cath has worked within the NHS for 30 years and remains as passionate about it as the day she joined.
“I couldn’t be happier in my work choice. I wasn’t bright enough to be a doctor, I didn’t want to go down the commercial path – it would have paid more but put me under more commercial pressure. More optometrists wanting to join us.
“Orthoptic addressed all the passion I had, working in a hospital setting – I personally thrive on that.
“There’s nothing stuffy about this directorate, we all respect one another, work towards the same aim, identifying need, not being afraid of change.
“Orthoptic is 70-80 per cent paediatrics but we come into contact with stroke patients, anyone with a visual field defect, glaucoma, macular issues, neurogenic – the list is endless.
“So are the rewards.”
"There have been a few children with behavioural issues &, funnily enough, once they get their glasses they don't get bored or live in a little blurred bubble any more."
Cath Gray orthoptic services manager Blackpool Vic
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