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Decatur ophthalmologist Dr. John C. Lee has put his fight against glaucoma on wheels.

Two years ago, Lee built a portable eye pressure testing apparatus he began taking to service club meetings, banks, churches, family reunions or any type of gathering, where he gave the test to adults free of charge. By May of 2014, he had established the Midwest Sight Foundation and launched the Blindness Prevention Program.

Now the test is even more portable, it's in a van, the Midwest Sight Foundation Mobile Screening Unit. In the last month, he's already made several local appearances and is available for future events by calling his office at (217) 423-9000.

"We want to reach out to people in the community," Lee said. "Glaucoma is the silent thief of vision. Over 10, 20 years, people with the disease gradually lose sight, it comes so slow they don't even realize it. And you see people with glaucoma, they adapt and they function. They walk around moving their head around, checking everything like an FBI agent.

"If nothing is done, eventually they'll go blind. But if you get tested early enough, it can be prevented."

The Mobile Screening Unit is the latest strike in a war Lee has been fighting against glaucoma since diagnosing a truck driver and father of five with the eye disease in 2013. The man had failed his commercial driver's license test and thought glasses would correct his vision. But he had glaucoma, ending his professional driving career.

"Here's a guy in his 40s losing his job and taking away 25 years of work time," Lee said. "That's well over a million dollars. And he has a wife and kids who have to be taken care of. It takes a taxpaying citizen and turns them into a burden on the system.

"And that's not even mentioning the quality of life. Blind people aren't happy people. There's a lot of depression.

"After he came in, I found myself thinking about him and his family more and more, and wishing I had done more."

Fifty years ago, Lee could never have imagined he would someday feel so passionately about glaucoma prevention. He was born and raised in Korea, then moved to the U.S. and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Kansas State.

Within two years, Lee was working as a mechanical engineer but also going to medical school at the University of Iowa. He had originally planned on going into orthopedics, but preferred the instructors in ophthalmology.

During his residency at Iowa, he treated several patients from Central Illinois and identified a need for ophthalmologists in the Decatur area. He began working as an ophthalmologist in Decatur in 1979.

Now 77, Lee still runs a full-time practice. With help from his family he began the Midwest Sight Foundation a year and a half ago.

"I just want to educate people and get them tested," Lee said. "At my age, I'm not interested in a bigger practice. I just want to make them aware. I felt like that if I could keep one person from going blind, it would be a success."

So far, in the year and a half since starting the Blindness Prevention Program, Lee has alerted five people that they have glaucoma, and 50 that they're at high risk.

"That's huge," Lee said. "If it's caught early and the patient gets treatment, they don't go blind. Even if they just have a few threads left, they can keep the vision they still have."

The test takes about a minute and results are available immediately. If the pressure in a patient's eye exceeds 18 on the test, Lee will recommend they seek treatment.

"Above 18, if they don't have it, they're headed toward it," said registered nurse and ophthalmic medical technologist Lorrie Durbin, who has worked with Lee for 35 years.

If caught early, treatment, usually eye drops, can prevent progression of the disease. But the longer it goes undiagnosed, the more irreversible damage it can do.

What frustrates Lee is that only half of the 2.3 million Americans with glaucoma are aware they have it because they're not tested.

"Half the population never has an eye exam," Lee said. "The more people we can get the word out to and test, the more blindness we can prevent. We hope the van helps. People will see it at the stop light, and we have the risk factors on the back for people to see."

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Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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