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Duke doctor furthers optic care for athletes

An eye care visionary has set his sights on establishing the first national center for sports vision.

Although sports-related eye injuries can have a significant impact on an athlete’s career, the Duke Sports Vision Center for Excellence is the only organization in the country equipped to care for athletes from diagnosis to rehabilitation, said Dr. Terry Kim, director of ophthalmology fellowship programs and associate director of cornea and refractive surgery services. The center is currently housed throughout the Duke Eye Center, but Kim said he hopes to unite these services in one building and to expand vision care to military service members with acute eye damage.

“For athletes in any sport, it is usually hard to find an eye specialist that focuses on trauma from sports,” Kim said. “What we want to do with our center is provide a one-stop place where you can provide treatment—not only surgery and medical treatment, but also vision rehabilitation—for specific injuries.”

Kim, Medicine ’92, hopes to one day combine clinical care, specialized treatments and management under one roof. One location can help streamline treatment, so athletes and military personnel can receive a diagnosis and treatment from sub-specialists without having to travel to multiple centers.

Each year, 40,000 sports-related eye injuries occur in the U.S., one third of which happen to children, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Injuries happen most frequently in basketball, baseball, lacrosse and hockey, Kim said. About 90 percent of these injuries can be prevented with protective eyewear.

Kim also serves as a consultant ophthalmologist for the Duke men’s basketball team. Kim said former Duke basketball player Jon Scheyer, Trinity ’10, inspired him to look into creating a comprehensive vision center designed for athletes.

Inspiration from injury

After contributing to Duke’s 2010 NCAA championship win, Scheyer suffered optic nerve damage when another player in the NBA summer league poked him in the eye. The injury led to a significant loss of vision in his right eye. Over the course of his diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation, he saw more than a dozen different doctors in six different states.

“[Scheyer] was really the one who inspired me to look at [creating a unified vision center],” Kim said. “He was so strong throughout the whole thing—not only physically but also emotionally.”

Scheyer said that although the injury was challenging, it helped him grow and changed the way he approached eye safety.

“The past two years—ever since the national championship—[have] been very challenging, but I’ve grown a lot because of what has happened. It’s been a great experience,” he said. “I wear glasses every time I play. I’m very used to them, and I feel like they’re a part of me now.”

Creating the center is also about providing athletes with a support group, Kim said. A network can help athletes understand how debilitating eye injuries affect their playing, how others coped with similar setbacks and how to prevent such injuries in the future.

Kim said he has high hopes for the center and sees opportunities for expansion beyond the current virtual center.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Kim said. “Once this gets going, there are a lot of resources we can reach out to—ROTC groups or other military personnel. This can end up being a national center of excellence.”

‘Physical therapy for the eye’

Besides clinical or surgical treatment, the center also offers low-vision rehabilitation—what Kim called “physical therapy for the eye”—for those with injuries or those who want to enhance their vision.

The center treats patients with permanent vision loss from injuries, acquired disease or inherited disease, said Dr. Diane Whitaker, chief of low-vision rehabilitation service.

“We are focused on helping people maximize whatever remaining vision they have—most people think that if you’re blind, then you’re Helen Keller-blind but that’s not the case—most people have some usable vision,” Whitaker said.

In order to help patients maximize their vision capabilities, Whitaker employs different types of widely available technology to aid people in everyday activities. Patients, for instance, can use Apple products with voice-over capabilities even if they cannot see the touch screen well, she said.

“Mainstream products are becoming more accessible for people’s vision impairment—even Kindles have magnification options or you can have text read to you,” Whitaker said.

There is currently no specific timeline for developing the unified Duke Sports Vision Center for Excellence, but Kim said he hopes to pursue the establishment of a physical center after the Duke University Health System finishes its major construction process for the Duke Medical Pavilion in 2013.

Andrew Beaton contributed reporting.