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Most Vulnerable Continue to Suffer While Healthcare Debate Carries On

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The National Eye Institute has devised several amazing devices to essentially remedy blindness. In fact, the New York Times recently reported on an amazing device that consists of 67 electrodes that are surgically implanted in the eye, a camera that is strapped to the bridge of the nose, and a video processor that is strapped to the wrist. This might sound like a funny invention, but it has helped the woman featured in the NYT article, 56-year-old Barbara Campbell who lost her sight to eye disease, to see once more.

Similarly, the Brain Port is just as unique and innovative as the last invention—except it uses the tongue to “replace” the eye. Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita came up with the idea of sensory substitution, or replacing one sense with another, but to do the same thing. His concept was based on the idea that sight does not come from the eye alone. Instead, the eye receives visual information, which it then sends as electrical impulses to the brain for interpretation. Specifically, the Brain Port is a head-mounted camera that collects white, gray, and black pixels of visual information. A computer in the device then transmits the information via electrical vibration to the tongue. Essentially, a blind person can “see” with their tongue.

Sadly, there are many blind people who will never get an opportunity to benefit from these amazing devices. It obviously isn’t because these technologies aren’t available. Instead, it is primarily a fault of how ill equipped our current healthcare system is to evenly distribute currently available treatments.

For a moment, let’s forget remedying already-lost eyesight. What about preserving eyesight in those who can still see a little, and could be helped by continued treatments? Monique Zimmerman-Stein is one of these people. She and her two daughters, age 9 and 10, are plagued by a genetic condition called Stickler’s Syndrome. This syndrome causes joints to dissolve and retinas to detach. Monique began losing her eyesight at age 16, but has received injections to help her retain some of her sight. However, her two daughters have also suffered from Stickler’s-related complications and procedures, including a tracheotomy, arthritis, and lost vision. Unfortunately, the Zimmerman-Stein’s health insurance is not enough to cover all of their complicated medical procedures. In fact, Monique and her husband spend $90 a week on Blue Cross Blue Shield, which only covers 80% of their bills. They are swimming in medical bills that are yet unpaid. They have tried to pay what they owe—including taking a second mortgage out on their home (which they later lost to foreclosure), sold furniture, cashed in on life insurance policies, borrowed $50,000 from a family member, and got some creditors to forgive a portion of their debt. As a result, Monique has decided to forgo her eye treatments to preserve her eyesight, and instead will dedicate all of the family’s little money to her daughters’ medical expenses.

In his September 9 address to Congress, President Obama urged lawmakers to set a limit on the amount that anyone would have to pay out-of-pocket for their healthcare. A lifetime maximum would help many people, especially those like Monique who need serious and continued medical care, to keep their heads above water. I pose this question: what good is it to limit health care to those who are already healthy and happen to have health insurance or the money to pay out-of-pocket? The most vulnerable need help and this isn’t best accomplished by our current healthcare system.

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