Blind World Magazine

From legally blind to fighter pilots: Eye surgery lets midshipmen see their goals.




Annapolis Capital - Annapolis,MD,USA.
Sunday, May 14, 2006.




Join the Navy and see the world -- in fact, if you're a midshipman at the Naval Academy, you're likely to see it clearer than ever.


Midshipman 1st Class Whit Abraham entered the Naval Academy four years ago with 20/200 vision and was considered "legally blind."


He graduates this month with 20/15 eyesight and is on his way to pilot training.


"It is the best thing I have done for myself at the Naval Academy," he said of the corrective eye surgery that will allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a fighter pilot.


Midshipman Abraham, 22, had worn glasses and contact lenses since the second grade.


Before surgery last year, something that would have been clear to a typical person at a distance of 20 feet looked to Midshipman Abraham to be 200 feet away.


His doctor, Cmdr. Joseph Pasternak of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, said about half of each academy class, roughly 500 students, wear corrective lenses.


About 350 midshipmen, all in their junior year, undergo the corrective procedure each year, said Dr. Pasternak, the head of refractive surgery at the hospital.


"If they are in Annapolis and wearing glasses and want it, we will screen them for it," Dr. Pasternak said. "Some don't want it, and not everybody is a (medically qualified) candidate for it."


The demand for eye surgery is great because two popular service assignments, pilots and SEALS, don't allow corrective lenses, Dr. Pasternak said.


Navy Capt. Michael Jacobsen, the academy's director of Professional Development, recently said that corrective eye surgery has enabled otherwise-capable officers to serve in some of the most demanding assignments in the Navy and Marine Corps.


"The number one disqualifier five years ago was vision," he said. "You came here 20/20, but after years of rigorous study you're 20/40 and can't be a pilot. Now, with (laser surgery), you can still fly."


The class of 2000 was the first to have the procedure available, said Dr. Pasternak, who pointed to an amazing success rate: 98 percent of those who undergo the process have results of 20/20 vision, and 68 percent realize 20/15 eyesight.


One retired officer, forced by glasses to spend his career as a flight officer or "back-seater," and not as the pilot he wanted to be, said he wishes corrective surgery had existed when he was a midshipman.


"If the opportunity for corrective eye surgery had existed back (then), I would've been on that like a hobo on a hot dog," said retired Marine Lt. Col. John Scanlan, a member of the Class of 1983 and now a novelist living in South Carolina. "I think every other mid with dreams of flying would've done the same."


The procedure is not limited to pilots, though.


Whether a mid chooses to go into submarines, surface warfare, Marine Infantry or whatever, an officer who can see clearly is an asset to the service, Dr. Pasternak said.


"You can imagine a Marine in Iraq," Dr. Pasternak said.


The cost to taxpayers is $600 per eye, which Dr. Pasternak described as a good bargain, considering it costs about $250,000 to educate a midshipman at the academy.


Midshipmen aren't the only ones getting the procedure, and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy and at the Air Force Academy also are eligible for corrective eye surgery - the Army performs their operations at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the Air Force Academy has its own clinic.


ROTC students do not qualify for the procedure because they are not considered active duty personnel until they are commissioned, by which time their service assignment already is determined, Dr. Pasternak said.


The chief concern in screening candidates for the procedure is their age, Dr. Pasternak said, which is why a mid must be in his third year of school to qualify. A candidate's eyes must be stable for two years without a change in prescription, but eyes grow and change rapidly until about age 25.


The Navy generally uses the PRK (photorefractive keratectomy) laser process and not Lasix surgery.


Both procedures reshape the eye's cornea but Lasix leaves a small flap of tissue on the eye, Dr. Pasternak said. While not a problem for most people, the flap may be subject to tearing or irritation in extreme combat environments.


Most patients feel only mild discomfort, but Midshipman Abraham said he felt considerable pain for a few days.


"You can smell your flesh burning - definitely a good time," he said. "Afterward, I had three days of excruciating pain; it felt like somebody put hot sauce and sand in your eyes."


Still, he noted, he would go through it all again, if necessary: "It was definitely worth it - I am loving it."



http://www.hometownannapolis.com/cgi-bin/read/2006/05_14-30/NAV




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