Durham, N.C. — Chronic eye disease can severely limit sufferers' daily activities, but a special kind of contact lens is offering them hope of a normal life.
The condition deprives people of the natural tears that keep their eyes moist and comfortable.
Jamie Harwood, 44, developed chronic dry eyes as a side effect of a bone marrow transplant that helped cure a blood disorder.
"I was almost becoming a hermit," Harwood said. "I didn't want to go outside. If the wind blew, it bothered my eyes."
Eye drops didn't help. She tried implanting plugs in her tear ducts that diverted more fluid to the eyes, but even that failed.
Then, optometrist Dr. Jill Bryant with the Duke Eye Center told Harwood about scleral lenses.
"Scleral lenses are large-diameter, gas-permeable lenses," Bryant said.
Scleral lenses are larger than contacts, and they don't touch the cornea. Bryant said the lenses touch the scleral, or white of the eye, and "vault over the cornea."
The lenses are filled with a sterile saline solution. "It's a cushion of liquid, just fluid that feels wonderful," Harwood said.
Patients use a special suction tool to put them in place.
Bryant said some of her patients take a while to get used to the lenses. "The hardest part is for patients to learn how to insert and remove it," she said.
Scleral lenses can help patients who can't correct their vision with standard glasses or contacts. They do not help patients with glaucoma, cataracts or retinal diseases.
Many insurance companies do not cover the cost of the lenses.
Harwood said she adjusted quickly to scleral lenses and is grateful for the changes they have made in her life.
"I have become a normal person again. I have a normal life. I go anywhere I want. I don't have to worry about my eyes being dry," she said. "It has been just a miracle for me. It's been a blessing answered."