116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — When a child is diagnosed with amblyopia — also known as “lazy eye” — the treatment is usually simple. The child wears an eye patch over their “good eye” to strengthen the “lazy” one.
Until 1997, when Cathy Thompson’s three-year-old daughter Mackenzie was diagnosed with amblyopia, the only option was an improvised adhesive bandage.
It didn’t feel good, and it looked worse.
“At that time, there was just the sticky patches, just a plain old Band-Aid,” Thompson said. “She wasn’t happy with it.”
So Thompson, then an elementary school teacher, created a patch with a sleeve to fit over the temple of Mackenzie’s eyeglasses.
It was a more comfortable arrangement and with a bit of style.
“I just made something to go over her glasses and be kind of fun,” Thompson recalled. “It was comfort, it was self-esteem.
“When she had the Band Aid patch everyone thought her eye was hurt. But when she wore this patch, it was, ‘Oh, look at you, you’ve got a unicorn.’ They’d make a comment on the patch, and that it was colorful.
“That made her feel much better about it all. Some of the neighbor kids even wanted to wear one. It was kind of a fun character-building thing.”
Thompson showed the patch to Mackenzie’s ophthalmologist.
“He said, ‘This is good, you should sell these.’ So we sold them to some of the doctors’ offices,” she said.
One night at a dance class, the father of another girl overheard Thompson discussing the project.
“He said, ‘I’ll put together a little website for you,’ and the moms in dance class helped me cut the patches,” she said. “The community helped push it along.”
The project became Thompson’s full-time job in 2008.
Today, Patch Pals helps children and parents around the world cope with amblyopia and similar conditions.
Each shipment includes a brochure, a Patch Power awareness bracelet and a Patch Pals Club membership card. The website has a parent-support page with information on eye disorders and tips on helpful books, and parents upload photos of their “happy patchers.”
“That was the teacher in me, wanting to have the work sheets and the reward calendar,” Thompson said.
Three percent to 4 percent of children develop amblyopia, which happens when the brain doesn’t recognize the sight from one eye. Left untreated, the brain relies on the “stronger” eye while the vision in the other deteriorates.
Wearing a patch over that strong eye strengthens the weaker one and trains the brain to recognize its input.
“If you don’t patch by the time you’re eight or nine years old, it’s hard to correct,” said Thompson, whose daughter wore a patch for slightly more than five years.
Patch Pals’ world headquarters in walk-in basement of the Thompsons’ northeast Cedar Rapids home includes a workspace with a computerized embroidery machine.
Another room houses inventory and shipping, from which up to 30 orders are sent daily to parents and doctors.
Owner: Cathy Thompson
Address: 6108 Sanden Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids
Phone: (319) 393-2620
The patch-making process has evolved.
“I used to have a stencil and I’d cut around it,” Thompson said. “I would do that all in the morning before I went off to school.”
Her husband, Bill, located a tool to die-cut multiple patch patterns from a single piece of felt. The computer-controlled sewing machine adds embroidered designs, some to custom order.
Two friends work part-time assembling the patches.
In addition to Thompson’s original “pocket” design, there’s a “poggle” style with a strap that fits around the wearer’s head.
“The computer can make all of those,” Thompson said.
“Some of them are really easy because the computer does it all. It’s made it so much easier.”
As with the production, Patch Pals’ marketing has changed since the early days of e-commerce.
“We would do ads on Google,” Thompson said. “Then Amazon and Target and Walmart kind of took over. They pop up at the top now because they buy all the sponsored ads.
“We decided to go with Amazon and sell them that way,” although the patches can be ordered directly from the Patch Pals website, too.
Patches are available in sizes from infant to adult — older customers wear them to counter double vision or eye fatigue.
Parents and former users say the comfortable, stylish patches make it easier for young children to cope with the inconvenience and feel less self-conscious wearing a patch.
“When I was teaching I thought, ‘This is kind of fun, but it will fade out,’” Thompson said.
“It just grew. I hear from kids now who are in their 20s who will come across us somehow and say, ‘I used to wear a patch.’”
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