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One father's desperate fight to save his son's sight

With his teenage son losing his vision, and no money to pay for the operation that could keep him from going totally blind, James Belahovick took a chance with a "letter of desperation" to a doctor he saw on TV -- and got a surprising response.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.

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.

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.”

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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."