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Health care: Smith Clinic adds vision center

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A vision center will open this week at the Smith Medical Clinic, filling a major need for its low-income patients, a third of whom have diabetes.

It’s the first major expansion of services since Dr. Cathcart Smith started the free clinic in a mobile home on the campus of Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Church 28 years ago, said Anne Faul, the clinic’s executive director.

The center expects to see an average of 50 patients a month. They will have access to screening services and prescriptions for corrective lenses.

“We are absolutely thrilled to provide services to meet this unmet need in the community,” Faul said. “With the opportunity for early detection and preventive measures, we can prevent patients from damaging or losing their vision.”

The vision center can also serve as a gateway for patients to get other services.

“A lot of times, people don’t come into the clinic with chronic diseases because they don’t have symptoms,” Faul said. “But if you can’t see … .”

Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness in adults because it affects the blood vessels in the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.

“With the prevalence of diabetes at the clinic, it just makes sense to start a vision center to serve the needs of our patients,” said Mary Clay, a registered nurse who is the diabetes educator at the clinic.

The center will be staffed by an ophthalmologist and opticians who volunteer their time.

The vision center startup was funded by Mike and Janice Coward, Heritage Plantation residents who are longtime financial supporters of the clinic.

The Cowards came to the U.S. from England in 1970 with $200 and a new baby, Janice said. They came to South Carolina when Mike, who has a doctorate in metallurgy, took a job as head of research for Georgetown Steel. He then started Coastal Wire in 1978.

“The world has been very good to us. We’ve done very well in South Carolina,” Janice said. “We try to do something to give back.”

While supporting various causes such as Miss Ruby’s Kids and Healthy Learners, “we’ve never found a niche for the philanthropic thing,” she said.

That changed last fall when a friend working on a designer showcase house to benefit the Smith Clinic and other groups suggested the Cowards fund the vision center.

The clinic had set up vision screening four times a year with the Association for the Blind in Charleston. “Last year, they decided it was too far to come,” Faul said.

The need and the donors were a perfect fit.

“I wrestled with big thick glasses as a child,” Janice said. Her younger daughter was born with a damaged optic nerve. Her husband has lost the sight in one eye to macular degeneration. “It seemed like a wonderful fit. It was something we could actually go on and do.”

The facility will be known as the Coward Family Vision Center.

The Cowards earmarked the proceeds from the sale of a house to fund the center’s equipment. The house hasn’t sold yet, but Janice said the cost was less than anticipated and they will be able to fund it “along and along.”

In addition, she contributed her artistic talent to the venture, painting a mural of a coastal scene on the vision center wall.

The Coward Family Vision Center will start seeing patients Friday. For more information about the clinic and its services, click here.

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