Optometrist Robert Blumthal has returned home to Paris specifically to provide eye care for Medicaid and working poor patients at Paris Community Hospital/Family Medical Center. His philanthropy follows his own life altering experience with a double-lung transplant. (Gary Henry/The Prairie Press)

A second chance at life

Optometrist Robert Blumthal is doing more than continuing a family career. He is providing a much-needed service after getting a second chance at life.

Blumthal was released from Barnes-Jewish Hospital at St. Louis Dec. 12, 2015, with the expectation he had no more than six weeks before idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis ended his life. Five days later the hospital called around 10 a.m. with news organs were available for a double-lung transplant if he could get to the hospital in two hours from his Springfield home. By 2 p.m., he was on the operating table. 

After recovery, he re-established his license and returned to his practice on a part-time basis with Prairie Eye Center at Springfield, but something seemed missing after his own medical crisis.

“It was a money driven practice,” said Blumthal.

Through his sister, who is employed by the Human Resources Center of Edgar and Clark Counties, he learned a lack of local service forced Edgar County Medicaid patients to travel to Casey, Mattoon or Danville for optometry care. Blumthal approached Ollie Smith, Paris Community Hospital/Family Medical Center, about serving as a visiting physician a half-day each month to see local Medicaid patients.

That half-day expanded to seeing patients two Mondays a month, and he anticipates adding more days in the future until he eventually stops working in Springfield. Medicaid patients are only part of his practice at PCH/FMC.

“I take care of the people I consider the working poor. Those who make too much for Medicaid help but whose employers don’t provide insurance,” said Blumthal. “I especially see kids of working parents who don’t have insurance.”

He is doing still more.

“I’m working with all of the physicians to do diabetic eye exams. I’m on the diabetes team here at the hospital and clinic,” he said.

Blumthal volunteered to do the kindergarten eye exam at the hospital’s back to school bang today. The kindergarten eye exam program is important to Blumthal since it was implemented during his presidency of the Illinois Optometric Association.

“That was one time when all of the professions sat down and agreed on something for the betterment of the clients without getting into turf wars,” he said.

Facing his imminent mortality, getting a last minute reprieve and returning to a functional life changed Blumthal. 

“I had a disease that went from nothing to you are going to die in four-to-six weeks in less than a year,” said Blumthal.

As his condition deteriorated, Blumthal lost the ability to drive, practice optometry, had critical weight loss and required 25 liters of oxygen per minute to breathe. He grew dependent on family members and friends from his Paris High School graduating class to bring him meals and take him to St. Louis for appointments. 

“It was tough times when you live on your own and depend on people to bring you meals,” Blumthal said. 

As recovery progressed, Blumthal reviewed his philosophical and religious beliefs and came to the conclusion he was allowed to live for a reason.

“I decided I was going to do something for my community,” said Blumthal, who moved back to Paris. “It’s my opportunity to give back.”

His sense of giving includes a desire to do a mission trip that provides eye care but admits that is unlikely because of the infection risk. A common cold can put him in the hospital and he wears gloves and a mask when seeing patients. 

Blumthal recalls discussing his recent life with a friend and expressed an opinion he was lucky. She disagreed and said he was blessed.

“It’s by the grace of God and a medical miracle that I’m here,” said Blumthal. “Now I live for each day. I don’t plan for the future.”

While he appreciates no longer being tethered to an oxygen tank, there is a possibility that need may return in the future. He said, “I know my life on this planet is limited, but I accept that.”

The Prairie Press

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