Imagine being in your early 60s, going for the first eye exam of your life, and learning that you have glaucoma.
Terrifying, right? But not as terrifying as not learning that you have it until it’s too late to fix.
But why would someone in his 60s never have had an eye exam until last month?
Because it’s too expensive? Because he doesn’t have insurance? Because he falls through the cracks left by Medicare and private insurance? Because he’s undocumented? In the country illegally?
Any or all of these things can be true, and they are the symptoms of a systemic problem far beyond the scope of any one do-gooder to fix. But it is not beyond the reach of any one socially conscious ophthalmologist to try to do what he can, when he can, with the tools he has.
For the second time in two years, Dr. Alden Leifer of Teaneck, who practices ophthalmology in Paterson, offered free eye exams to any adult who wanted one, and gave free eyeglasses — which he, his staff, and some donors paid for — to anyone who needed them.
Dr. Leifer has been working in Paterson since 1987. Dr. Leifer, who is from Brooklyn, was in the U.S. Army from 1982 to 1985, where he trained at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington and then worked at Fort Dix. Once he was done with his army obligations — and he found the experience to be “a wonderful opportunity,” he said — he and his wife began to search for a place to live, and to work someplace “within commuting distance of a Jewish community.”
Thus Teaneck, and Paterson.
Dr. Leifer began to work with an old-time, old-school, beloved Paterson ophthalmologist, Dr. Phil Opper, and eventually he bought the practice. Paterson had been a Jewish community, but by then it was changing. Dr. Leifer moved his office to Barnert Hospital — named after the wealthy local politician and philanthropist Nathan Barnert, whose name also was on his synagogue, Barnert Temple, now in Franklin Lakes. Since Barnert closed, Dr. Leifer moved to another Barnert-labeled facility, this time Barnert Medical Arts Complex.
So there Dr. Leifer is, treating patients, but wanting to do more, somehow to give back.
He learned about a program called Dentistry from the Heart, which began in Atlanta and now has branches across the country. “Dentists took the initiative to set up this organization, and it is significant,” Dr. Leifer said. “There is a lot of infrastructure involved.
“I can’t use it, because I’m not a dentist, but I thought it was such a nice idea that we created Vision from the Heart.”
On October 25, Dr. Leifer and the three doctors in his practice saw 130 patients, and gave them 120 pairs of glasses. “On a rough estimate, there was about $50,000 worth of donated goods and services,” he said. Although the doctors did not see children — it’s so hard that it would be an inefficient use of their time, they decided — they treated people from 18 to 80-something years old. “A lot of them were just routine exams — people who needed glasses, bifocals, reading glasses,” he said. “And then there were a decent number of diagnoses of pathologies — glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration. There were people who needed referrals to specialists for sight-threatening conditions.”
Given that these patients had not gone to a doctor because they could not afford to pay for their services, how would they be able to go for more advanced treatment? “We had a resource list with several places where they could go, that would accept charity cases, and a list of government agencies that could help,” he said.
“It’s a problem with our health care system today,” he continued. “Many of these people get lost in the shuffle. Most of the people who really need help are on Medicaid, so we have a way for them to get care. We see plenty of those patients, and we service them the same way we do all of our other patients. And we see people who come in and pay out of pocket. But then there are the people with no insurance — they might go to the drugstore and buy a pair of reading glasses, but they are missing out on the exams that could uncover more serious problems that they wouldn’t necessarily know about.”
Who are those people? “They often have jobs, but insurance is too expensive for them, so they just decide to go without it,” Dr. Leifer said. “And I am sure we have some people who have immigrated to the country, and whether they are legal or not we do not know. We don’t check their papers. But if they are not here legally, I don’t think that they can get insurance.”
The staff got a great deal of pleasure from the day, he said. “They were so involved; as much as you can have a bit of a party atmosphere in an office, we had it. There was a lot of energy. We had balloons, we gave out gifts, we had a raffle, and refreshments.
“We had a huddle in the morning, before we started, and it was very high energy. It is a really feel-good event, to be able to give back to people who need it.”
Dr. Leifer plans to make Vision from the Heart an annual event, he said, and he and his staff already are looking forward to next year.