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New hope for older eyes
An injection in the eyeball may sound like torture, but it brings welcome relief for people with macular degeneration.

 Dr. Mark Johnson preps Betty Blood's eye for an injection of Avastin. The treatments for wet macular degeneration have improved the 91-year-old woman's vision.
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Date published: 6/21/2011

BY JIM HALL

When Betty Blood tells her friends that she goes to the doctor once a month to get an injection in her eye, they usually wince and say, "Oh, no."

But the shots don't hurt, she tells them, and because of them, her vision has improved.

Blood, a 91-year-old resident of Lake of the Woods, is among the 2 million Americans who suffer from an advanced form of age-related macular degeneration, the nation's leading cause of vision loss. Millions of others suffer from less serious forms of the disease.

She is also among the thousands of sufferers who are being treated with regular injections of a drug called Avastin. The medicine was originally developed as a cancer-fighter but was later discovered to be effective against macular degeneration.

The shots not only halt the spread of the disease, but for many patients, they restore some of their lost vision.

"I feel like I've been saved from total blindness," said Louise Fletcher, an 87-year-old Richmond resident who receives regular treatments in Fredericksburg.

In the past, doctors told patients with macular degeneration, "You've got a bleed here. We can do a laser, but you're going to lose your vision," said Dr. Binoy Jani, a Fredericksburg ophthalmologist.

"Now we're telling them, we can do these injections, and we may actually be able to restore some of your vision," Jani said.

Added Dr. Mark Johnson, a Fredericksburg retina specialist: "It's totally revolutionized the way that we take care of these conditions."

Blood visits Johnson's office near Mary Washington Hospital every four to six weeks. Each time, he inspects her right eye. If he sees evidence of swelling and bleeding beneath the retina, he injects her with Avastin.

About 40 percent of Johnson's practice involves the care of patients with macular degeneration. Most are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. A few, like Blood, have reached their 90s.

In her case, she first noticed a change in her vision several years ago.

"I do a lot of reading, and I just couldn't read anymore," she said.

Her regular eye doctor recommended that she see a retina specialist like Johnson.

He found that the tiny blood vessels in the macula at the center of the retina were leaking. The resulting swelling was making it hard to read.


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DR. MARK JOHNSON

TITLE: Ophthalmologist, The Retina Group of Washington

SPECIALITY: Retinal surgery OFFICE: Fredericksburg, for nine years EDUCATION: University of Western Ontario, University of Michigan AGE: 41 RESIDENCE: Bethesda, Md.

For patients with macular degeneration, the type of lights they use and the placement of those lights can make a big difference, said Becky O'Bryan, occupational therapist at the Fredericksburg office of The Retina Group of Washington.

When reading, for example, O'Bryan recommends that patients position a light closest to their good eye.

"I need to have that light where I have my best vision," she said.

She also recommends that patients use incandescent light bulbs rather than fluorescent ones.

"For people with macular degeneration, it is not safe for them to be waiting for the light to get bright," she said.