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Video: Pioneering eye surgeon helps teen to see again

  1. Closed captioning of: Pioneering eye surgeon helps teen to see again

    >>> this morning in our special series "defying the ods," a young man is literally seeing the world in a whole new light thanks to a doctor's generosity. we'll talk to him in a moment, but first here's our chief medical correspondent dr. nancy snyderman .

    >> dear doctor , i'm hoping for a miracle for my son. i'm hoping you can help us.

    >> he's always had a passion for cars but at age 18 he still doesn't have a driver's license and h can no longer do to school.

    >> one day he turned to me and he said, dad, i did some tests, and, dad, i'm blind. i got some cold chills . i said, blind?

    >> sean was quickly losing his vision, his world becoming darker and darker.

    >> i was terrified that i couldn't do my normal activities and do what i want to do for getting a job or driving.

    >> with the left eye completely blind and the right eye rapidly declining, sean was forced to drop out of school just months shy of high school graduation. sean has a condition which occurs when the dome-shaped cornea begins to bulge outward into a cone, causing vision to deteriorate. there are procedures that can help reverse the problem but with both parents out of work ing the family had to file bankruptcy leaving sean with few options.

    >> we couldn't afford it. it was too expensive. we are always low on money, trying to pay the bills, electricity, food, so we didn't have much money left.

    >> they were running out of time , so sean 's father put out a cry for help.

    >> i want him to have the same opportunities that any young man wants, the chance to get a driver's license, to get a job, to be successful one day, to be independent.

    >> and someone answered.

    >> we wanted to give sean that opportunity because we really believe in him. we know that he's determined, that he doesn't want to let this get him down.

    >> dr. brian boxer is an eye surgeon who has invented a procedure.

    >> the way we're going to treat sean involves applying vitamin applications combined with light. that transforms the cornea making it strong and therefore for the first time in history we can stabilize it.

    >> the doctor performed the procedure on sean at no cost to the family.

    >> it's a miracle day for us.

    >> it's a painful procedure that lasts less than an hour and with his family anxiously looking on, sean 's world is already becoming clearer.

    >> 39.

    >> 39? exactly. yeah.

    >> he is then fitted for special contact lenses shaped specially for his eyes.

    >> really good. the sky, the towers, everything.

    >> now that he can read, sean is excited for his new life, studying for his driver's license and finishing school .

    >> there you go.

    >> i'm going back to school.

    >> sean is now with us along with his dad james and also joining us now is dr. nancy snyderman . thank you so much. sean , let me start with you. i saw you watching that piece. i say watching really purposely because you were smiling, enjoying it. how has your life changed now that you can actually see this far?

    >> a lot. i'm studying the driver's license book to learn how to drive, finishing school , looking for an apartment, looking for a job, and hopefully start my life up.

    >> your whole life has begun again.

    >> yeah.

    >> and, james , you know, watching you watch that piece, i mean you were getting misty-eyed, even seeing yourself in the operating room. you wrote the let their gave your son this new life.

    >> that was a letter of desperation. i didn't know what else to do. i didn't know what would happen after i wrote the letter, if anybody would answer. i thank god for dr. brian answering that. it's been a miracle for me to watch my son see again.

    >> he answered the letter. he donated his services. this is an expensive surgery 20rks$,000, is that right, dr. nancy?

    >> it can go up that high. the problem is the sooner you intervene, the better the outcomes. so with this -- i've seen cases where the eye almost looks like the tip of an ice cream cone and at that point the corn a ya is allowed to stretch like that, the risk of scratches to the eye and poor vision, it can literally mean blindness. there was at one point -- i know we have an eye chart over here. sean couldn't read the "b," "e" on the line chart . now he can read seven lines. even with my glass for me, that's a little blurry. he's got 20/40 vision which is madsing.

    >> this is what it used to look like and now you can read seven, which is seven feet. which is pretty remarkable. my good lord. what do you want to say to the doctor, sean , who was willing to do this for you.

    >> thank you for giving me my life back, for being able to see.

    >> a reminder for everybody if all of a sudden someone says your eyes look funny or kids are struggling in school, i think the child might be struggling with vision and get a vision test early. schools can do that. and you can pick up cases like seans early in childhood. we don't really know the cause but some of these are congenital and at least there's early intervention.

    >> watch for the ripping of the eye.

    >> you learned from a doctor on a tv show and you're on this tv show .

    >> definitely. i felt so inadequate i wasn't aware of my son. he would say i think something's in my eye and this is happening in elementary school . had i been aware and had the other people been aware who examined niz eyes and gave him glasses.

    >> i don't know, james . i think you made up for it.

    >> i think you did too.

    >> sean , good luck to you in everything. dr. nancy, great story. thank you so much.

TODAY contributor
updated 6/2/2011 10:50:46 AM ET 2011-06-02T14:50:46

James Belahovick couldn’t stand watching his son go blind. But, with his family in bankruptcy after he and his wife lost their jobs, they couldn’t afford the expensive treatment that might halt Sean's degenerative eye disease.

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So, Belahovick took a long shot and wrote a letter to a doctor he’d seen on TV. “Dear Dr. Wachler,” Belahovick began, “I guess I’m hoping for a miracle for my son. I’m hoping somehow you can help.”

“It was a letter of desperation,” he told TODAY’s Ann Curry. “I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t even know what would happen after I wrote the letter – if anyone would answer it.”

To Belahovick’s surprise, Wachler himself answered the letter. Even more amazing, the California ophthalmologist promised not only to help Sean Belahovick, but to do it free of charge.

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Sean started his life like most kids, active and healthy - until he hit his teens. That’s when he realized something was seriously wrong with his eyes. After a visit to the eye doctor, he came to his dad with distressing news.

James Belahovick started to choke up as he recalled the day.

“He said, 'I did some tests and, dad -- I’m blind in one eye,'” James Belahovick told TODAY’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman, his voice shaking. “I got some cold chills. My son was going blind. And he said the other eye is starting to go too.”

Sean was diagnosed with a condition called keratoconus, which usually shows up in adolescence. As the disease progresses, the cornea, the clear, dome-shaped outer layer of the eye, begins to thin. With time, the cornea bulges outward and its shape changes from a dome to a cone.


By the time James Belahovick began his letter, Sean was completely blind in his left eye and the sight in his right was fading fast.

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A few months shy of high school graduation, Sean dropped out because he could barely see objects just a few inches in front of him. There wasn’t enough time to learn Braille so he could complete his courses before the end of the school year.

“I was terrified that I couldn’t do my normal activities and do what I wanted to do for getting a job or driving,” Sean told Snyderman. “I miss playing games, riding bikes.”

There are treatments for keratoconus. Hard contacts can help some people preserve vision. But for others, until recently the only way to prevent blindness has been a transplanted cornea. That was an option that the Belahovicks just couldn’t afford.

Enter Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler.

Wachler, a specialist in keratoconus, developed a new treatment that can restore sight without a transplant. During the half-hour procedure, drops containing key vitamins are applied to the eyes and then activated with a special light. The combination transforms the cornea and strengthens it.

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Wachler’s first patient was Olympic bob sled driver Steve Holcomb, who’d been forced to retire because of failing eyesight. The results from Wachler’s treatment were so good that Holcomb returned to driving bobsleds and eventually won a gold medal in 2010.

James Belahovick saw a TV program about how Wachler had helped Holcomb regain his vision. The problem was that the procedure costs about $20,000. The only thing Belahovick could think of was to write to Wachler and plead for help.

An appointment was scheduled for Sean to have what is now known as the Holcomb C3-R. The teen was awake for the entire painless procedure. Wachler fitted Sean with special contact lenses that would improve the teen’s vision further. Walking down the street afterwards, he was amazed at how clear the vistas had become. “I can see the sky, the towers, everything,” Sean said. “Wow.”

Soon, Sean was on his way back to school, hopes and dreams all back on track. He told TODAY his message for his ophthalmologist: “Thank you for giving me my life back.”

For more stories like this one, "like" TODAY Health on Facebook.

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic."

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