The glasses are half full for this doctor
Antonia Orfield, a behavioral optometrist and vision therapist at Harvard University Health Services and a private practitioner in Central Square, wants to make you see better — without any pricey surgery. Radical as it may sound, Orfield thinks it possible that most of us with myopia, or nearsightedness, could gradually give up our glasses.
Orfield, a 66-year-old former Cambridge resident who now lives in Somerville’s Union Square, stands no more than 5-foot-3. Gray mixes with her blond hair. She’s petite with clear blue eyes. What she knows now, but didn’t know as a kid, is that good vision is a learned motor skill, like walking. With daily eye exercises, she could gradually train her eyes out of its myopia and regain 20/20 eyesight.
She became a doctor in behavioral optometry because of her own vision problems as a child. In the eighth grade, Orfield remembered sitting in the middle of the auditorium noticing that people on stage were blurry. Just a year earlier, she saw everything clear.
At 12, Orfield got fitted for glasses, which she describes as “socially and aesthetically catastrophic.” This was in the 1950s when glasses were big, thick and nerdy. She had blue ones with rhinestones on the side and wore them only to see the chalkboard. The rest of the time she said, “I moved in a fog of vanity and became somewhat introverted. I stopped looking far.”
At 33, Orfield found a doctor who helped her get rid of her lenses. As amazing as it sounds, in seven years, she went from barely being able to see the big “E” on the standard eye chart, to 20/20. She now only uses reading glasses.
“Myopia is not hereditary,” she said. “They haven’t found a gene for myopia in the Genome Project.” She explained that myopia results from strain on the eyes — from reading, from computers, from television. These days, eyes don’t need to look far and wide. It’s not like in the days when humans depended on farsightedness for hunting and gathering. “Use it or lose it,” said Orfield. “It’s the way the body and brain works.” Without intervention, myopia usually progresses, but it can be controlled and sometimes reversed. But, if a doctor “overdoses” on the minus in the prescription, the patient will adapt to stronger and stronger lenses like a crutch.
A visit to her office for a vision exam goes well beyond reading letters on the standard eye chart. She tests for more than just 20/20 — what a normal person should be able to see standing 20 feet away. Her exam answers questions like: Is vision clear at close distances? Do the two eyes aim, move and work as a coordinated team? Do the eyes maintain clear vision at varying distances? Do eye movements show adequate muscle control, tracking and fixation?
In her book, “Eyes for Learning,” published last year, she said even a little walking every day will stimulate “y cell” motion detectors in the brain and strengthen peripheral vision, which helps prevent myopia. Vision is especially enhanced by activity, which is why many vision exercises include activities that require a combination of visual and motor skills — such as walking on balance beams, tapping moving balls with a pencil, encircling two balls with the one hand, not allowing the balls to touch.
Signs of near-vision problems include frowning or scowling while reading or writing; thrusting the head forward or tilting to one side; covering or closing one eye habitually; difficulty copying letters or numerals from textbook to paper; frequently losing one’s place when reading; or skipping words or whole lines of text. Her book gives a checklist on how to recognize vision problems and activities on how to prevent them.
Orfield said that she will retire one day, but not any day soon. She still sees too many kids going nearsighted.
Reflecting on how she got started in optometry, she said, “As a teenager, I wanted to get rid of my glasses because I was too vain to wear them. And, I wanted to see.”
Orfield didn’t have the opportunity to train her eyes out of its myopia until she was 33, but she said what started as a teenager’s vanity has become a lifelong devotion to helping others recapture 20/20 without glasses.