Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Houston VA Significantly Expands Visual Impairment Services

March 25, 2008

New, 2,900 square foot facility opens for
low vision and blind veterans.

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U.S. Army veteran Arnett Wilson (right) and U.S. Army veteran Charles Davis leave the new, 2,900-square-foot facility housing the Visual Impairment Service Team, the Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist program, and new Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation (VISOR) program at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. PHOTO BY: Bobbi Gruner, MEDVAMC Public Affairs

HOUSTON - Eye trauma, from sight impairment to blindness, accounts for more than 15 percent of all serious wounds suffered by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Army statistics. In addition, VA estimates there are more than one million visually impaired veterans over the age of 45 in the United States, with that number likely to grow as the age of the average veteran rises.

In anticipation of this increased demand for visual impairment services, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) continues to expand its rehabilitation programs for low vision and blind veterans. The MEDVAMC recently converted its former Education building (Bldg. 120, just inside the Old Spanish Trail gate) to a new, 2,900 square foot home for the Visual Impairment Service Team, the Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist program, and new Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation (VISOR) program.

The new VISOR program is an intermediate nine-day rehabilitation program offering skills training, orientation and mobility, and low vision therapy. The course includes maximizing remaining vision through the use of alternative scanning or viewing techniques, problem solving and organization of work, traveling through different environments, practicing life skills such as doing laundry or changing light bulbs, and operating a computer to search the Internet and send, receive, and read e-mail. Veterans are also assisted in making an emotional and behavioral adjustment to blindness through individual counseling sessions and group therapy meetings.

“The VISOR program gives our veterans the perfect opportunity to adapt to constantly evolving prosthetics and adaptive equipment,” said Bill Johnson, VISOR director.

This advanced outpatient program is staffed with four low vision rehabilitation therapists and a low vision optometrist with specialized knowledge in assisting visually impaired veterans adjust to their vision loss effectively and maximize their use of whatever remaining vision they may have. The program is designed for visually impaired individuals who may benefit from a comprehensive rehabilitation training experience, but wish to do so closer to their home environment.

The VISOR program builds on the MEDVAMC’s 2005 addition of a blind rehabilitation outpatient specialist who makes home visits to teach orientation and mobility, living skills, and computer skills. Veterans are also introduced to several new, state-of-the-art devices to assist with reading prescription labels, shopping, preparing meals, and even choosing matching clothes.

"Most visually impaired veterans have progressive vision loss. The three most common causes of blindness are age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. That comprises about 80 percent of all vision impaired patients," said Silvia Orengo-Nania, M.D., MEDVAMC Eye Care Line executive. "We want to provide services at the earliest point of vision loss to maximize a veteran’s quality of life, reduce dependence on family and community, and resolve patient safety issues such as falls, burns, and medication errors. These are the kinds of things that can be mitigated through appropriate early intervention with vision rehab.”

To accommodate special needs patients visiting the new Visual Impairment Services Center, MetroLift has added a new stop near Bldg. 120. Low vision and blind veterans, who are in the main hospital building and need to go to the facility, are asked to stop by the new waiting area located at the hospital’s Nursing Home Entrance. A volunteer blind veteran, who is a trained member of the Blinded Veterans Association, will then escort the patient between buildings.

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