Getting to see Christmas

SALEM, VA – All Thomas Harp III wanted for Christmas was to be able to see – and to work again. Now he can.

“I love to work,” said the 59-year-old Salem carpenter and builder who had been blind in his right eye for more than 15 months. It was hard for him to read specifications, he had no depth perception, and finally, gave up driving because he started having accidents.

Thomas Harp III's blind eye is prepared for cataract surgery. Photo by Meg Hibbert

Harp has blue eyes. Before cataract surgery on Dec. 14, his right eye was a cloudy gray, though, and he could barely tell light from dark. He went into the operation with one good eye. He came out with two.

“After today I will be able to work,” said an excited Harp. “My business does everything from changing a light bulb to building a house.”

The 1972 Glenvar High School graduate was the last of nine patients Vistar Eye Center ophthalmologist Dr. Stuart Tims operated on that day, as part of the Roanoke Valley Center for Sight’s Fifth Annual Gift of Sight. The Free Cataract Care Clinic was for patients who needed surgery but couldn’t afford it right now. Eye Care and Surgery’s Dr. William Thompson did another five surgeries after Tims finished.

It took Tims, who graduated from Cave Spring High School in 1999 and who returned to live in the area, a little more than 30 minutes to complete Harp’s more-challenging than usual cataract surgery. Simple cases take about 10 to 15 minutes.

In the operating room, Tims looked through a scope and used minute tools to open up the sack containing the cloudy lens, inserted a high-frequency ultrasound probe to suck out the milky cataract substance in small pieces, then stabilized Harp’s cornea before implanting a folded interocular lens to replace Harp’s cloudy natural one.

Nurses and technicians assisting that day also volunteered. “This is my favorite part,” said Registered Nurse Sharon Sheffield of Salem halfway through the surgery, “when it opens up and there’s that beautiful red behind the cloudy area. See how clear it is? Isn’t that amazing.”

Part of what took a little longer than many cataract surgeries was the density of Harp’s cataract, and the necessity of tightening up what Tims called “the suspension wires” (the real name is zonules) holding the parts of the eye in place.

“We’re inserting a permanent ring that goes in to hold the iris open,” Tims told Harp.

That’s an oversimplification of the surgery, but after it was over, Harp immediately remarked, “I can see!”

“This is probably the best gift I’ve ever been given,” said Harp. “I’m just elated and extremely joyful.”

It was the first year Tims had taken part in the Gift of Sight program, after starting work with Vistar in Salem in August.

After completing undergraduate and medical school at the University of Virginia, he specialized in cornea and cataract surgery.

“I volunteered because I felt it was a nice service to offer people who are in need, particularly in the holiday season. It’s an act of good will,” Tims said.

As for Harp, he was eager for friend Quinn Taylor and his son, Kevin, 13, who are moving to Salem from Honduras, to drive him home so he could see his 97-year-old mother, Hazel Akers, and as soon as his eye healed for a few days, get back to work.

“I’ll be able to level up some of what I’ve been doing that was crooked because I could only see with one eye,” he said. “When you can’t see, your whole quality of life changes. I still work, but I don’t get as much accomplished. Now I have a chance to be able to save some my investment properties I was about to lose.”