As the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers took the field for the Super Bowl in 2011, Odette Crawford noticed the screen looked blurry. She had just had an eye exam and received a new prescription for her glasses so she was confused.
“I asked my roommate, ‘What’s wrong with the TV?’ and she says, ‘Nothing is wrong with the TV,’” Crawford, 68, a retired associate prison warden in Sacramento, California, recalled to TODAY. “I thought that there was something wrong with my prescription.”
She made an appointment with her eye doctor to be safe.
“My eye doctor saved my life,” she said. “I could have gone into a diabetic coma if I did not pay attention to her instructions.”
She’s sharing her story to raise awareness about how an eye exam can contribute to better overall health.
“If we don't pay attention to simple things like getting an eye exam every single year, that could create something catastrophic for us that would impact the rest of our lives,” she said.
She never suspected diabetes
While she was diagnosed with prediabetes two years earlier, Crawford had very few symptoms. She felt thirsty often but thought it was just because of the foods that she ate and didn’t worry much about it. It wasn’t until she visited the eye doctor that she realized her prediabetes had developed into diabetes. At that visit, the doctor was stunned by the change in Crawford’s eyes.
“She did my examination, and she says, ‘Odette, your prescription has changed drastically in the past three weeks. You need to go get your blood sugar checked right away,’” Crawford recalled. “I was really just nervous and wondering what in the world she was talking about. It was very confusing.”
At first, she wasn’t sure what her blood sugar had to do with her vision. But when she had her blood sugar tested and learned how high it was, she realized her eye doctor knew something she didn't.
“I was 406, way off the charts,” Crawford said. “Doctors said, ‘We have to get your blood sugar down.'”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention normal blood sugar levels range from 80 to 130 mg before a meal and 180 mg up to two hours after a meal. Higher than that could indicate prediabetes or diabetes. While most people think of undergoing a blood test to understand if they have diabetes, eye doctors can also detect it through changes in the eyes. Most eye doctors recommend eye exams even if people think their vision is fine because it can detect some conditions.
“Even if you believe that your vision is clear, a lot of times there are hereditary genetic diseases that can occur,” Dr. Jennifer Tsai, a Manhattan-based optometrist and VSP (vision insurance) provider, told TODAY. “A lot of eye conditions are diseases that can be silent in that the patient often doesn’t know until something is detected during an examination.”
Uncontrolled diabetes can damage vision and eye doctors can often detect changes that encourage patients to get proper treatment.
“Sometimes with diabetes as the blood sugar rises it can cause damage to the blood vessels in the eyes,” Tsai said. “If it's not under control, it can cause our vision to fluctuate … If left untreated it can cause permanent damage.”
Tsai said people should consider an eye exam as important to health as a physical.
“30 million American adults currently have diabetes and another 88 million live with prediabetes,” Tsai said. “My recommendation definitely is to have an annual comprehensive exam. It's critical for everyone … But for more than 100 million Americans an exam can definitely play a critical role in preventing blindness.”
Life with diabetes
After the hospital gave Crawford medication to lower her blood sugar, doctors recommended that she take a daily pill to regulate it and test her blood sugar.
“I was upset about the whole thing. I went into a little bit of a depression. I was in denial, and I wondered what I had done wrong,” she said. “But I knew that if I didn't pay attention to my diet and alter my eating habits, I would be in major trouble.”
She changed her diet to include less added sugar and carbohydrates and now exercises, playing basketball when she can.
“Basketball keeps me running up and down the court and plus I have a couple of grandkids to keep me running up and down everywhere,” she said. “I’ve lost some weight and all of that bodes well for this condition.”
She hopes others learn the importance of speaking up when something seems wrong.
“My doctor discovered I had diabetes through my eyes and she ignited a fire in me that made me pay attention to everything that was going on with my body,” she said. “The bottom line is that you have to pay attention to yourself because your entire life will be altered.”