New eye screening technology preventing blindness in diabetics

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- Between long workweeks and raising families, taking care of 'you' sometimes takes a backseat. And if you have diabetes that can lead to serious, even life-threatening consequences.

Here in Central Texas, nearly a quarter-million people have diabetes. Dr. Anas Daghestani, chief executive officer for the Austin Regional Clinic (ARC), says the disease is becoming endemic in the United States.

"In the course of diabetes, you really just need to keep up with staying active, keep up with your doctor appointments," said Dr. Daghestani. "But later in the disease you have to worry about your eyes, you have to worry about your kidney, about your heart – so it can get overwhelming between all the doctor's appointments."

Diabetics are at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy, which can eventually make a person blind. Despite the risk, 40 to 50 percent of diabetics aren't getting regular eye checks. "You can tell someone you can risk losing your vision -- but you're busy, you're working 40-50 hours a week, taking care of your family."

Now ARC is bringing the eye testing to their clinics, saving diabetics a trip to the eye doctor. With new eye screening technology, they're able to take pictures of a patient's eye. The images are sent to a retina specialist and patients can get results back in a day or two.

Dr. Daghestani says this doesn't replace an eye exam, but alerts doctors that something is abnormal to hopefully detect retinopathy early. ARC has screened 3,000 patients in the last nine months, and 20-25 percent of them have detected something abnormal.

One of those patients is Demetrius Kellum, who learned he had diabetes in 2001 on 9/11. "I remember seeing the planes crashing into the buildings and I just remember not even being fazed by it because I was in so much pain," said Kellum.

Over the next few years he made major lifestyle changes: eating better, exercising more regularly and managing stress better. But two years ago he lost focus and his health declined, after losing his wife to a sudden heart attack. "I was trying to figure out how to get back to where I needed to be. Back on my own, let me take care of myself."

He eventually went to ARC, where the eye screening detected retinopathy. He got treatment, which likely saved his vision. "My eyesight, it's a lot better. I'm glad I have it. I couldn't do my daily job I couldn't do my hobby at all."

His advice to everyone: take care of yourself. "There's a lot of external stress out there, work and family and things like that. You need to make sure you're doing what you need to take care of yourself."

ARC looks forward to getting the technology at more of its clinics, to give more diabetics the power to put their own health in their hands.

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