Cissie Anderson was driving with her husband, John, back to Winston-Salem from a trip to Virginia last fall when it happened.
"It was a partly cloudy day and at one point during the drive, the clouds appeared to be rising and falling and rising and falling,'' she says. "And I thought, 'I am hallucinating.'''
She pulled to the side of the road for a bit, and eventually got back behind the wheel to ever-so-carefully negotiate her way home.
"You can't drive without vision. You've got to be able to know where you're going and what's going on around you,'' she says. "That's when I started asking about cataract surgery.''
"Cataracts are an age-related condition that develops slowly over time,'' says Matthew Levine, director of communications and marketing for Research to Prevent Blindness, the nation's leading volunteer organization that supports eye research. "You don't really notice change in vision with cataracts until it becomes clearly problematic.''
It is often not until people fail the vision test needed to renew their driver's license that they see an ophthalmologist and learn they have cataracts.
Anderson's inquiries about what to do led her to Keith Walter, MD, an ophthalmologist with Wake Forest Baptist Health who specializes in cataract and Lasik surgeries.
Walter says Anderson's experience was typical for cataract patients.
"The most common problem is that patients start to notice glare from lights while driving at night, which makes it increasingly difficult to drive under those circumstances," Walter says.
Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss in older adults. As people age, the lenses inside their eyes typically become more cloudy; in cataract surgery, the damaged lenses are removed and new, artificial lenses implanted.
Cataract surgeries to each eye are done a couple of weeks apart, so that patients can be able to get around almost immediately with improved vision. There is no anesthesia involved, and typically no stitches either. As soon as the first eye is repaired with a new lens, Walter says, patients will exclaim "Oh my gosh, I didn't know what I was missing!"
Today, cataract surgery is one of the most common ambulatory surgeries in the United States. Advances in lens replacement mean that many people no longer need to use glasses for either distance or reading.
The Tecnis® multifocal lens used by Walter-he is among several ophthalmologists in North Carolina to work with it-is more likely to help patients become "spectacle independent,'' according to a 2011 study published online and reprinted by the National Institutes of Health. The Tecnis lens provides "equivalent, if not improved, distance uncorrected visual acuity when compared with other multifocal lenses,'' the study found.
Such was the case with Anderson, who had worn reading glasses for 20 years before her cataract surgeries in March and April. She now has 20/25 vision in both eyes. At one time, Anderson was a professional children's photographer; she hopes now to be able to do more photography of her seven grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
"Everything is much sharper and colors are so much brighter,'' she says. "I can see the variations in greens on trees as new leaves come on. It's kind of like when I was a kid."