Throughout Willie Bell’s life, career choices have meant taking opportunities that were about as limited as his vision.
Finding jobs that matched his interests and involved tasks which he could properly perform has been quite a challenge for Bell, who was born legally blind and has had minimal vision even while wearing glasses.
The 46-year-old’s poor vision has prevented a number of aspirations over the course of his life, from entering the National Guard after high school to playing football.
“It’s limited me to certain things in life,” Bell, who is originally from Buffalo, New York, said of his poor sight. “It’s been hard for me to get the work that I like to do.”
He compared his condition to that of “a man walking with a stick,” saying he has had little vision during the day and nearly none at night. Though Bell says he has been able to hold various jobs over the years, such as working in warehouses, they have not been related to his true passion — fitness.
His struggle to find stable work is also what has led him to become homeless for the last year and a half, he says. Having moved from Buffalo and traveled around, Bell, who is single with no children, has been living on the streets of Santa Monica for the past two months.
He has visited Santa Monica-based OPCC (formerly Ocean Park Community Center) for food and showers, along with other support, and would sometimes stay in affordable motels when possible, but the experience has left Bell feeling somewhat hopeless, he said. That is until an unexpected encounter with Dr. Paul Dougherty this past Thanksgiving.
Dougherty, a renowned refractive eye surgeon, was offering free eye exams and distributing glasses to homeless and low-income people at the Santa Monica Civic Center when he saw Bell wearing his extremely thick glasses. After determining that Bell was highly nearsighted and learning about some of his other “tough breaks,” such as not being able to find the right job and ending up homeless, Dougherty said he wanted to do something to make a difference in Bell’s life.
“He talked about how every time he tried to do something that he wanted to do, he was affected by his vision, and I was touched by his story,” Dougherty recalled. “I felt like I should give him the gift of sight and that it was the right thing to do.”
Not only did Dougherty pledge to give Bell corrected vision for the first time in his life, the doctor offered to perform the procedure for free. While many patients have sought LASIK surgery to correct their vision without the need for contact lenses or glasses, Bell’s prescription exceeded the range for LASIK treatment, Dougherty said.
The doctor, who has pioneered another procedure known as Vista Vision ICL, in which contact lenses are implanted on the eyes, believed that Bell would be the ideal candidate for such a treatment. Dougherty did not downplay the advancements of LASIK, saying he has had the procedure done on his own eyes, but added that Vista Vision provides better vision quality without the effect of dry eyes and is reversible.
When Bell heard that the cost of the surgery — $9,000 in his case — would be covered by Dougherty, he said he immediately felt a sense of hope and saw firsthand that there are giving people in the world.
“I thought it was amazing and it gave me hope; it gave me desire,” Bell said of the doctor’s offer. “It made me know that the world is not all that bad.”
Warren Luster, vice president of operations for Dougherty Laser Vision, said the Vista Vision ICL, which does not alter the cornea of the eye, gives results “like high-definition vision” and it could one day replace LASIK as the preferred treatment method, particularly for those who are highly nearsighted. He noted that Dougherty is one of the few eye surgeons in the U.S. who performs the procedure on both eyes during the same visit.
When Bell underwent his treatment earlier this month at Dougherty’s office in Hancock Park, Luster said it was a gratifying experience to watch.
“I got tears in my eyes; it was just an amazing procedure,” Luster said.
The process was done in less than ten minutes and had no complications, Bell said. He could immediately notice the benefits, such as being able to tell Dougherty the time on the wall clock from a distance.
Asked about the improvements that Vista Vision has made for Bell, Dougherty plainly said the patient can now clearly see for the first time with a prescription of nearly 20-20.
“First of all, he can see without those great big glasses,” said Dougherty, adding that Bell also has good vision at night.
Bell was quick to describe the visual changes he has experienced, noting that he can look at someone standing before him and know who they are, can tell the difference between a man and a woman walking down the street and make out the specific models of cars. But he also referred to the behavioral differences the treatment has made, explaining that he used to feel “defenseless” living on the streets by not being able to perceive potential threats and now feels more confident.
“It’s strengthened me in more ways than one,” he said.
Bell said Dougherty has done an amazing thing by giving him vision, something that is a “blessing from God.” Dougherty said knowing that Bell can see well gives him “goosebumps,” adding that it’s treatments like this and other philanthropic efforts he does that make his job rewarding.
“This is kind of for me, living out why I’m on this Earth,” the ophthalmologist said. “The world has been really great to me and this is my way of giving back.”
Luster said Dougherty Laser Vision staff see the confidence in Bell and hope that he can now begin to transform his life.
“We’re hoping that this is a catalyst for Willie to get his life together,” he said. “It’s just a great, great feeling. There’s no words to describe it.”
Bell said he is currently looking for an apartment to live in as well as a job. His goal is to work as a fitness instructor or possibly a boxing trainer, but most importantly to be in a field “where the money is at.”
With Christmas approaching, Bell said he is grateful for the generosity of Dougherty Laser Vision to help give him the best gift of his life.
“It’s a sensational feeling,” he said. “God has given me back my life.”