Seeing is believing at USAFA eye clinic

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
(Editor's note: In the original version of this story, we incorrectly stated the Warfighter Refractive Eye Center as being part of the 10th Medical Support Squadron. The eye center's parent unit is the 10th Surgical Operations Squadron)

When Charles Rose had laser eye surgery here at age 38, Academy eye surgeons gave him vision he never had before.

Rose, a 10th Medical Support Squadron ophthalmology technician and retired master sergeant, is among the more than 20,000 refractive surgery patients whose vision improved since the 10th Surgical Operations Squadron Warfighter Refractive Surgery Center first opened its doors in 2001. Nearly 2,000 of those patients have been cadets.

The center consists of four techs, one optometrist and three surgeons who offer free Lasik and photorefractive keratectomy, or "PRK," surgery to eligible active duty service members and reservists with active duty orders.

"Ninety five percent of our patients reach 20/20 vision or better," said Paul Dondi, the surgery center's manager.

The clinic is one of seven refractive surgery centers in the Air Force and regularly treats local and out-of-state patients.

"We have patients that come from Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, North Dakota -- you name it," he said. "So far, the farthest a patient has traveled was from Kadena Air Base, Japan."

Minimal pain, quick recovery
During the Lasik procedure, surgeons use a femtosecond laser to create a protective flap to access the eye's inner corneal tissue. The flap is then lifted and an Excimer laser is used to reshape the cornea, Dondi said.

"We put the flap back down and then do the next eye," he said. "The procedure takes about 15 minutes."

For PRK procedures, surgeons use a rotating brush to remove epithelial cells on the eye's cornea and then put patients under an Excimer laser to treat and reshape the cornea to improve distance vision.

"PRK takes approximately eight minutes," Dondi said.

The patient doesn't feel any pain during the surgery, said Maj. Derrick Montgomery, chief of the Warfighter Refractive Surgery Center and a cornea specialist.

"It's the postoperative period and healing time that can a bit uncomfortable," he said. "In six months, Lasik and PRK patients will have the same vision. PRK requires a longer recovery period but patients won't have the flap that Lasik patients do."

The most common symptom after refractive eye surgery is dryness, Montgomery said.

"With advancements in the last ten years, Lasik and PRK are very safe," he said. "Cornea refractive surgery began in 1983 and has progressed since then. We've been able to collect 31 years of data and have had a lot of technological advancements."

Cadets interested in refractive eye surgery must have an exam at the cadet clinic and a full dilated exam at the center here, Dondi said.

"Their eyes are scanned on our advanced equipment and if they're a candidate for Lasik or PRK surgery we'll put them on the schedule," he said.

The center's staff uses state-of-the-art equipment including topography and Penacam machines to map patients' eyes, Dondi said. In November 2013 the clinic received a new Excimer laser for refractive eye surgery, replacing the original laser they had used for 13 years.

"It's like treating the fingerprint of an eye," he said. "We use custom view technology which captures photos of the eye and is put into the laser. You won't find this cutting-edge equipment in a typical refractive center."

Wartime readiness
The center's patients include active duty airmen, pilots, missiliers and cadets, Dondi said.

"We get them out of having to wear contact lenses and glasses. Can you imagine being deployed, the whistle goes off and you can't find your glasses? You drop them, step on them and now you can't see. It's an amazing procedure," he said.

Dondi said the center makes sure to send their patients back to their commanders in good health and with great vision.

"We are treating highly trained pilots and navigators," he said. 'We can't take risks on patients who might have a complication down the road. That wouldn't make us look good and commanders wouldn't allow their troops to get refractive eye surgery here."

Montgomery said the instant gratification patients receive from Lasik and PRK surgery brings him a high level of satisfaction.

"I went into this field to restore sight," he said. "There is probably no other area in ophthalmology where you get immediate results like you do with Lasik and PRK surgery. Before surgery, patients lay down on the table with poor eyesight, unable to see the 'Big E' on the eye chart. Minutes later, after the procedure, they sit up and have 20/20 vision. Its life changing and some people break down in tears. That does my heart good."

Everything the clinic's staff told Rose prior to his PRK eye surgery in 2004 came true, he said.

"Not having to worry about glasses or contacts anymore has been the biggest benefit for me," he said. "If you have the opportunity to get refractive eye surgery, it far outweighs the risks. It changed my life."

The center is open 7:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. For cadets and active duty service members interested in surgery, call the center at 333-0525 or 333-5958.

Airmen can request an application by sending an e-mail to Airmen should include their Air Force specialty in this email.