Sight & Hope Restored

By Anna Truss

Kathleen Stephens stands on a hill in front of the dock in the Chickamauga Dam Day Use Area. Wednesday, November 23, 2022. (Photo by Anna Truss).

While many people plan to retire fully by 65, that dream is not always a reality for everyone. Kathleen Stephens, a resident of Hamilton County, TN, is still a full time certified nursing assistant at the age of 79.

“I still work full time and I thank God for that because I can see what I’m doing, because before I wouldn’t have been able to see,” Stephens said.

She worked for a company named Comfort Care in 2007 and was assigned to care for a woman named Katie. 

During this time, Stephens began to have issues with her eyes. She always wore glasses, but her eyes began to bother her constantly. Katie encouraged Stephens to get her eyes checked for issues.

“I started looking for some help and I didn’t have insurance. Everybody wanted anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 down front before they would get me any help. I was referred to a place called Volunteers In Medicine (VIM) and they help people who don’t have insurance,” Stephens said.

She had been diagnosed with the most severe kind of glaucoma, closed-angle. This can cause patients to become blind if not treated.

Stephens could not even begin to afford treatment for this condition. She was uninsured at the time and did not qualify for government insurance, while also not being able to afford private insurance.

Stephens is also the sole caretaker for her disabled son, and she was becoming concerned that she would not be able to care for him any longer. Plans for other family members to take on his care were underway but were able to be set aside due to a change in circumstances.

Through VIM, she was referred to a program called Project Access. Project Access is a program that works with doctors to provide specialty healthcare to uninsured individuals. This specialty care qualifies as charity care, so it is completely free of charge to these patients.

The program connected Stephens with Dr. Paula Nicola, an ophthalmologist at Erlanger Medical Center.

“I had my first visit with her on Valentine’s Day, and I said that was a real gift of love to somebody,” Stephens reminisced about her first meeting with the doctor.

Kathleen Stephens holds a photo of herself in the 1980s. Wednesday, November 23, 2022. (Photo by Anna Truss).

Dr. Nicola met with Stephens and confirmed the severity of her condition. The first laser surgery to restore her vision was performed in February 2008, with a second follow-up surgery a few weeks later. Both surgeries were performed at no cost to Stephens.

The recovery process for these surgeries was only a week for each surgery, which allowed Stephens to return to work quickly. This had been her aim all along and she only missed two weeks of work during that time.

Stephens was able to get onto government insurance supplemented by private insurance shortly after her glaucoma surgeries through Project Access. This has covered her yearly checkups with Dr. Nicola to make sure things are going well. 

In 2010, Stephens had a final surgery to remove cataracts from her eyes. This surgery was also with Dr. Nicola and had a similar recovery period to her previous surgeries.

“The biggest surprise is I don’t have to wear glasses anymore,” said Stephens. “I only have to use reading glasses.”

Generosity has become a core tenet for Stephens after all of the grace she received from VIM, Project Access and Dr. Nicola. These days, she gives back to Project Access when she has extra money.

Stephens concluded, “I’ve not ever heard of anyone else that does it. And that’s why I think it’s so important for when we get to where we’re able to give back, we need to help other people…I felt like if they helped me, why can’t I help them to help somebody else?”

For more information, or to donate to Project Access, please visit https://www.hcprojectaccess.org.

Audio By Anna Truss.

Meet the Storyteller

Anna Truss is a senior Communication major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with experience in writing, photography, and graphic design. She hopes to work in organizational communications or public relations. When Truss is not working, she can be found with a book. She can be reached at rgp438@mocs.utc.edu.

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