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From blurry to clear
Live long enough, and cataract surgery becomes a real possibility

 Stafford County resident Kitts said that before cataract surgery, her vision was so blurry she could barely see out of either eye.
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Date published: 10/5/2008


Dr. Thomas Falkenberg made two small cuts in Mary Kitts' eyeball. He was about to remove the lens that she was born with and replace it with an acrylic version.

"Look at the bright light straight ahead and don't move," Falkenberg told her.

Kitts, stretched out before him, was covered in surgical drapes. A speculum held her eyelid open. An anesthetic kept her from feeling pain.

Kitts, 57, was having cataract surgery.

According to the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, the procedure was done 2.9 million times in 2006, making it by far the most frequently performed outpatient surgery in the U.S.

More than 3,000 cataract procedures are done each year in the Fredericksburg area. Almost all are done at the Surgi-Center of Central Virginia in Stafford County, where five eye specialists work.

Falkenberg is one of the busiest of the group. Each Monday and Tuesday he uses two adjoining suites at the center, working in one while the staff readies the other for the next patient. In a typical week, he operates on 30 people.

The Mayo Clinic estimates that by age 65, about half of all Americans have developed some clouding, and by 75, about 70 percent have cataracts that impair vision.

Researchers aren't sure why a lens becomes thicker and less transparent with age. Vision becomes blurry and dim. Glasses don't seem to help anymore. Many people stop driving at night.

"It's like a film over your eyes," Kitts said. "You keep blinking and widening, thinking that it's going to clear this film off. The film never clears."

Falkenberg cautions his patients that the surgery and new lens are "not going to make you 20 again."

But he also says that patients will probably no longer need glasses for many day-to-day activities.


Kitts, a Stafford County resident, was never without glasses.

She remembers how delighted she was when she got her first pair at age 12. Trees, she recalls, were no longer one mass of green, but a net-work of individual leaves.

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When she adds the cost of the premium lenses, the co-pays and the prescriptions, Mary Kitts figures that her cataract surgeries cost $6,000, or $3,000 per eye. Most of that cost was for multifocal lenses. Medicare and other insurance companies consider the lenses cosmetic and will reimburse only for the cost of monofocal lenses. Monofocal lenses restore distance and intermediate vision but not near vision, while multifocal lenses restore all three.