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A clear vision

Growing up, Suzanne Smith was set to become either a heart surgeon or a ballerina. Then came the choice … she happily traded her tutu and pointe shoes for sneakers and scrubs. Not as a heart surgeon though, but as an ophthalmologist.

Although no one in her family had any interest in the medical field, Dr Suzanne Smith on the other hand always had a fascination with the human body. Add a healthy dose of passion to help people, and the decision came easy. Yes, she loved ballet and excelled as a ballerina, but it was becoming a doctor that made her heart beat a little faster.

“During my Zuma year, I worked in a rural hospital in the Free State. I was busy with caesarean sections and in the theatre next door ophthalmologists were doing cataract surgery. In between cases, I went to watch what they were busy with. A-ma-zing! The surgery and the delicate work they were doing were incredible … and that’s putting it mildly. I was hooked and started studying for my primary exams in Ophthalmology. Thereafter I applied for a position to specialise in Ophthalmology, gained heaps of experience whilst working with a professor, and went into private care.

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“During my journey, I met Dr Irene Freed, also an ophthalmologist. Once she completed her government time we started VisuSense. Now we have three practices – at Life Wilgeheuwel Hospital, Netcare Pinehaven Hospital and at West Rand Eye Centre.”

Experienced in a host of skills with impressive names – cataract removals, general ophthalmology surgery (removal of pterygiums, growths, lid repairs, trauma, strabismus etc), glaucoma management and all aspects of medical ophthalmology (diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, hypertensive retinopathy, dry eye, infections and uveitis), Suzanne treats children and adults.

Some of these conditions are also listed as the most common vision problems South Africans struggle with, among them cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration (an eye disease that causes vision loss) as well as allergic eye disease and dry eyes.

“Cataracts require surgery, macular degeneration often needs regular eye injections, and glaucoma can be treated both medically and surgically. Glaucoma, although never cured, can be very well controlled with treatment to prevent permanent vision loss. Most of these conditions can be rectified with treatment, especially with early detection. That’s why it is so important to go for routine eye tests and examinations! A lot of us take our sight for granted; therefore, do the same for your eyes as you would do in the case of other systemic illnesses. And wear proper protective eyewear. Always.”

Suzanne added that the saying, “the eyes are the windows to the soul”, is quite true; however more in the sense that medical conditions can be picked up during an eye exam.
“High blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, cholesterol, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and thyroid problems can be picked up on a fully dilated eye exam. Life-threatening conditions such as brain tumours and even carotid stenosis can also be picked up during a comprehensive eye exam.”

When Suzanne is not busy saving eyes, she shops. A self-confessed shopaholic she feels that retail therapy brings her loads of happiness. From clothes, decor, art and food to sneaker shopping. A little birdie told us she has 30 pairs in all the colours you can think of!
But it is not only shopping that brings her joy – quite the homebody, she and hubby Gerrit have loads of fun with their three-year-old toddler Freya and three-weeks-old baby boy, Callum. And when the couple, who are huge foodies, really want to treat themselves, they head to Roots Restaurant at Forum Homini for a fine-dining experience. Because balance, right?

One thing is certain, this friendly doc with the sassy sneakers is passionate about many things, but to make you see clearly surely tops her list.

How often should you take your child for eye screenings?
Children should be screened at birth and by their paediatrician at all their routine follow-ups within the first year of life. Thereafter in preschool and school, about every two years if no vision correction is required (just a quick check with optometrists who go to the schools or at a private optometrist). If any red flags are picked up, the child will be referred to an ophthalmologist for a fully dilated eye exam and cycloplegic refraction. Children who need spectacles or contact lenses should be examined every six months instead of a year if they have a refractive error. However, it depends on the age of the child as well as the problem.

Four common vision problems in children:
• Vernal keratoconjunctivitis – a common allergic eye disease seen in pre-adolescent children, often boys. Symptoms include light sensitivity, itchy eyes, brown discoloured sclera, ulcers and even severe astigmatism or vision loss.
• Viral conjunctivitis – such as pink eye, is often contracted in schools and is very contagious. The symptoms include red eyes, ocular discharge, light sensitivity and severe discomfort.
• Blocked tear ducts – often seen in children under one year old. The symptoms include excessive tearing of one or both eyes. This can require surgical treatment.
• Styes and chalazions – are both lumps in or along the edge of an eyelid. These are infections in the lid area that can cause diffuse or localised swelling and discomfort. Both conservative and surgical management can be used to treat these problems.

Less-obvious signs of vision problems in children:
• If they turn their head to the side when looking at something in front of them, it may be a sign of a refractive error, including astigmatism.
• If your children complain of frequent headaches or have a short attention span, it may be just because they can’t see well and it hurts to focus.
• If they sit very close to the TV or avoid reading, drawing, playing games or doing other projects that need up-close focus, or are easily frustrated with reading, it bears mentioning to your eye doctor.
• Eye movements tell a lot about vision, even if a child is pre-verbal. How well children follow faces or moving objects is a clue to their visual abilities. Another indication of a possible disorder is unusual jerky movements of a child’s eye(s). These eye movements can be constant or intermittent. They can be horizontal, vertical, oblique, torsional (circular), or combinations of those mentioned.

Eight warning signs that your child has vision problems:
• Red eyes • Holding a book/ iPad/ phone very close to his or her face
• An abnormal position of the eye (squint or cross-eyed) • A cloudy/ white pupil • Excessively large corneas • Protruding globe/ eye • Lazy/ droopy eyelid • Covering one eye when watching television or reading

How to avoid digital eye strain:
• Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at an object at least 20 feet away. And blink! Staring at digital screens decreases our blink rate. Lubricating drops often help to relieve dry eyes caused by decreased blinking.
• Spend at least two to three hours outdoors each day away from any technological devices, and do activities that require focusing on distance and outdoor play.
• Ensure that monitors are positioned at eye level, directly in front of the face.
• Avoid using digital devices 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.

Details: visusense.com

Text: RIALIEN FURSTENBERG. • Photographer: CELESTE CILLIERS. • Make-up and hair: ANTOINETTE DE BEER. Scarf: Madelaine Clothing @ Ana-Paula Coffee Shop

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