By James Brabenec, Fort Sill, Okla.February 10, 2012
Staff Sgt. Coleman Gray's world without his glasses appeared like a vague, shimmering subject an impressionist painter may create on canvas.
Because glasses were so necessary for him to function as a medic, he paid about $350 for a special scratch resistant pair before deploying to Iraq.
"They survived the year without getting gouged up too bad, but it was still a pain as the glasses were uncomfortable under the dust visor I wore," he said, "and with the threat of wearing the chemical warfare suit there was the extra concern of tucking them safely into a pocket and not destroying them when putting on the protective mask."
But Gray, a 1st Battalion, 78th Field Artillery medic, and patients of all ages may likely soon see the world in sharp, vivid colors thanks to a new surgical procedure offered at the Reynolds Army Community Hospital ophthalmology clinic. Whether its lens replacement surgery, offered mainly to retirees, or implanted lenses placed inside the eyes of active-duty Soldiers, patients now have more options to shed their dependence on glasses and improve their vision.
Capt. (Dr.) Justin Coco is the medical professional behind the treatment that has only been available at Fort Sill for about three months. The Army has been doing lens implants for about four years, part of the Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Program.
"I knew [this type of surgery] was approved for Soldiers and wanted to give those I was disqualifying for the laser vision correction another choice," said Coco, the hospital's chief of ophthalmology. "I didn't have the ability to send them elsewhere and so decided to do them here; it's part of the realm of refractive surgery, and that's one of my interests."
He added the procedure, conducted with local anesthetic to numb each eye takes about 15 minutes per eye. Although the clinic primarily offers the lenses to those patients who don't qualify for the laser options, Soldiers who do qualify can still request the lens implants. Compared to other artificial replacements, such as heart valves or joints, the lenses don't degrade over time. Coco said a lens can stay in the eye as long as the person needs it to.
So far demand has kept the doctor plenty busy. He said he's done about 20 eyes here in three months, and that word is circulating from Soldiers who had the procedure done to those who might also be good candidates for it. Post surgery care includes eye drops for a period of time and scheduled appointments to verify eyes are healing well and vision remains sharp. Coco said most patients realize exceptional eyesight equal to what they had with glasses prior to surgery.
"If a patient could see 20/20 or better before surgery with glasses, way higher than 90 percent are seeing that well post surgery," he said.
Results also compare with Lasik and most patients note much quicker improved vision than the PRK procedure.
Gray said he didn't elect to have Lasik surgery done. He understood it to be a bad option for anyone who played contact sports or is a Soldier, because of the risk associated with the corneal incision flap.
As for PRK, his corneas were three microns too thin for that option. For comparison sake, the average human hair, despite all the attempts to make it thick and lustrous, is only 40-50 microns thick.
Still awaiting lens replacement surgery, he regularly wears a pair of glasses that cost him a few hundred dollars, but that's just money for the 14-year veteran. Gray expects his day-to-day quality of life is about to change significantly to where he doesn't have to grab his glasses to let his dog outside or see how his son is doing.
This aligns with what Helen Neighbors is experiencing thanks to her New Year's presents -- lens replacement surgeries Jan. 4 and 18 to improve the eyesight she had because of advanced cataracts.
Neighbors, the wife of a retired Soldier, said the clouding effect cataracts inflict on vision first began for her about 15 years ago. As the conditioned worsened, she lost her depth perception and colors were all off so that she couldn't tell one from another.
"Now it's easier for me to walk, and I don't have any fear of tripping or falling. Before surgery, I could see a curb, but couldn't tell if it was 2 or 4 inches deep or slanted," she added.
Shaking with a hearty laugh, she recounted the only drawback to improved vision -- her increased independence -- means her husband no longer has to take care of everything around the house. Still, her surgery arrived just in time, as he is going to have the same procedure done soon, and then she will take care of him.
With any surgery there is a potential for side-effects. Coco said this potential is quite low, however, patients should discuss the procedure thoroughly with their health care provider to make the best decision.