By Margaret Krohn Submitted November 7, 2012
Audrey Dernbach was a registered nurse from Eau Claire who discovered that her three year old son, John Charles, suffered from amblyopia; more commonly known as “lazy eye.” This is when one eye’s muscles are too weak to see properly and if it goes untreated all vision could be lost in the eye. Dernbach was shocked to find out her son had this serious problem, especially since she had never heard of it in her nursing classes. “Lazy eye” is easily prevented if caught in time and Dernbach set out to make people aware so children did not have to go blind in one eye the rest of their lives.
After discovering John had lazy eye Dernbach had him wear a patch for six months. In the end he had almost perfect vision (20/30) in the lazy eye. Dernbach was so relieved and hated to think what would have happened if she had not had John wear the patch she decided to go out and help other children. She called John Bacharach, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department to ask what they were doing to prevent lazy eye. Bacharach replied he had never heard of lazy eye. Dernbach was then determined to spread the word.
Bacharach, Dernbach and Anabel Airis, a registered nurse volunteer, started a screening program for preschoolers in 1960. Only ten percent of the three and four year olds were brought in for the screening and Dernbach became frustrated by not being able to reach more children. The screening continued until 1965. Bacharach wanted to come up with a way for screening to be done accurately at home in order to reach out to more children. In 1966 two University of California-Berkeley graduate students developed “The Eau Claire Home Screening Eye Kit for Preschool Children.” This kit included a screening introductory letter from Bacharach, a screening instruction sheet, a card with a large E and a small E and a stamped, self-addressed postcard with a number corresponding to the child’s name at the health department. This postcard was to be sent back to the health department with the results. The kit was sent to families with 3 ½ to 4 year old children. County birth records supplied the names.
The test was performed by the parents having the child cover one eye, using a cupped palm to keep the child from peeking, and then point with their fingers the direction the lines of the E point. The large E was used for practicing so the child understood the game but the small E was used for the actual test. The card was placed fifteen feet from the child and then each eye was covered one at a time and the child had to say which direction the E was pointing.
After the home screening during the first year Dernbach would screen every child whose parents returned the card and during the second year she checked every third child, regardless of whether the parents returned the postcard. If the parents did not respond within two to three weeks of receiving the kit, Dernbach called the family to see if there were problems. By the second year 52% of the families that received a kit responded. That was up 35% from the first year and Dernbach was determined to keep the number rising.
Dernbach decided she wanted to make the story of lazy eyes more understandable for children and set out to write a children’s book explaining what lazy eye was and how it could be tested. She compiled her notes about amblyopia and Lou Cameron put the story into rhymes. Dernbach then contacted Erol Maki, a local engineer and artist, to illustrate it. It was Maki who suggested the main character be Charlie after Dernbach’s son John Charles. Maki died before he could finish the illustrations but Bob Baker stepped in to finish it copying figures Maki had drawn. The story is about a little boy Charlie who had trouble seeing things, was always spilling his milk, and could not catch a ball. Eventually his parents got an eye screening kit in the mail and his mother decided to test Charlie. His parents were surprised to find Charlie had a lazy eye so they got him an eye patch. Eventually after Charlie wears the patch for some time his lazy eye was fixed and he could see clearly and do all the wonderful things he could not do before. The book was finished in 1972 and added to the kits. The response to the health department greatly increased with the adding of the book to the kit. Sometimes parents would ask for a second copy because the children had worn out the book from enjoying it so much. The popularity of the book grew and it was translated into several languages.
In 1972 Dernbach and Cameron founded Lazy Eye Ltd of Eau Claire County to handle the costs of printing and postage for the books and kits. Dernbach did not receive a salary or reimbursement for gas and mileage with her husband contributing a car; that was how important her cause was to her. The Lazy Eye Ltd was entirely non profit and depended on donations from organizations like the Lions Club and people. Dernbach was the president with George Miller and Frank Brown, Eau Claire ophthalmologists, as first and second vice presidents and Cameron was secretary-treasurer.
Recognition for their work began to come in from state, national, and global levels. Bacharach wrote an article about the results of the kits in “Public Health Reports” in May 1970. This spread the word about lazy eye and the kits. Seventy two countries and major medical schools around the United States sent in requests for the kits. Dernbach and Cameron agreed to speak on television and radio programs throughout Wisconsin to spread awareness of their cause. In 1975 Dernbach won the National Center for Voluntary Action award. She and Cameron traveled to Washington D.C. to receive this award from former President Gerald Ford in May 1976. Governor Patrick Lucey signed a bill that required local health departments to send kits free to every family with children younger than five. In 1977 Dernbach and the program received the National Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties and Humanitarian Award from the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
Audrey Dernbach was determined to help children like her son John discover if they had lazy eye and get it fixed before it was too late. Her work and efforts gave awareness to lazy eye on local, state, national, and international levels.
“Son’s ‘lazy eye’ spurs city woman to action: Test, book aimed at saving sight” Donna Wallace, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram
“Nurse gave world vision on lazy eye” Troy Espe, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram 6/3/2003