Optometrist Leslie Kirk was about to leave for her lunch break when she overheard a mother talking to an associate at the Walmart Vision Center where she worked, in Summerville, South Carolina.
Her 5-year-old son’s pediatrician had just discovered a slight refractive error in the boy’s vision and recommended that he be checked for reading glasses in the next year or two. Dr. Kirk, who’d been practicing for almost a year, interrupted.
“I told her children should really have an eye exam before kindergarten,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I can take a look right now if you’re not busy.’” The mother, whose son was there with her, agreed.
Dr. Kirk led them to the exam room and began checking the boy’s eyes. The results were unremarkable. At 20/25, the boy’s vision was barely off. His color vision checked out, and his depth perception and visual fields were fine too.
Dr. Kirk chatted casually with the mother while the they waited for the pupil dilation drops to take effect. But when Dr. Kirk looked inside the boy’s eyes, she was shocked by what she saw: bilateral papilledema, swelling of the optic nerves in both eyes indicating increased pressure in the brain.
The boy would have to visit the emergency room right away.
“I can’t even remember if I charged them for the exam,” says Dr. Kirk. “It was just such a whirlwind.”
Late that night, the mother texted Dr. Kirk with an update: The boy had been diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain caused by a tumor (which turned out to be benign). He was scheduled to have a shunt placed in his brain to relieve the pressure.
“I remember thinking, ‘This kid is going to hate doctors for the rest of his life!’” Dr. Kirk says.
But a month later he showed up at Dr. Kirk’s office bearing a thank-you card and an angel plant (for his “angel”).
Years later, Dr. Kirk still keeps in touch with the boy (now in eighth grade and doing well) and his mother, though their family has since moved out of state.