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Doctor focuses his eye on helping wounded soldiers who suffer vision problems

NURISTAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan– Scanning the horizon, U.S. Army Cpl. Justin L. Gessert, an infantry team leader from Marshfield, Wis., assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack, sits in his fighting position on a remote hilltop in the Shal Valley in eastern Afghanistan's Nuristan Province Nov. 8. (Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell, 210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Ballistic eye protection, as worn here by Army Cpl. Justin L. Gessert, a 327th Infantry Regiment soldier deployed to Afghanistan in November 2010, is helping to reduce battlefield eye injuries. (Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell, 210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

U.S. soldiers suffering combat-related vision disorders now have a brighter future, with the support and expertise of some of the nation’s leading vision specialists behind them, including Akron Children’s Dr. Richard Hertle.

As director of Akron Children’s Vision Center, Dr. Hertle spends his days caring for patients with vision disorders and ocular motor disorders.

But now in a new advisory role on behalf of the military, he’s also lending his expertise to providers caring for soldiers and veterans having vision problems as a result of traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Dr. Hertle is one of 17 ophthalmologists, optometrists and other clinicians lending their expertise to the Vision Center of Excellence, which works to enhance cooperation between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Dr. Richard Hertle

Dr. Richard Hertle

“TBI, often caused by improvised explosive devices [dangerous homemade bombs], is one of the major causes of injury for our soldiers in recent war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Dr. Hertle. “TBI can cause a number of vision problems, such as eye movement disorders, reading difficulties, blurred or double vision, headaches and light sensitivity.”

The goals of the Vision Center of Excellence are to connect soldiers and veterans with eye injuries to the medical experts they need, whether they’re affiliated with a VA facility or other healthcare systems, facilitate patient-centered support, and track eye injuries to promote research.

In recent years, there has been more research on TBI and its lasting effects. This has created greater public awareness.

“The brain is shaken up,” said Dr. Hertle. “We know it is associated with clinical depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome and we the vision system is also at great risk.”

Army Pfc. Douglas K. Phillips a member of the 3rd Infantry Division’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, deployed to Durai-ya, Iraq, in May 2007, shows the damage to his face and his eye protection from a small-arms attack. Phillips credits eye protection with saving his eye. .S. Army photo by Sgt. Natalie Loucks

Army Pfc. Douglas K. Phillips a member of the 3rd Infantry Division’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, deployed to Durai-ya, Iraq, in May 2007, shows the damage to his face and his eye protection from a small-arms attack. Phillips credits eye protection with saving his eye. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Natalie Loucks

Dr. Hertle said no two soldiers who suffer TBI share the exact symptoms and it’s critically important to provide them with comprehensive vision evaluations.

Prescribing eye glasses can help, but, in many cases, that alone isn’t sufficient treatment.

“These soldiers often need an intensive and prolonged course of vision therapies,” said Dr. Hertle. “Eye exercises, even eye surgery, may be needed.”

Dr. Hertle’s career path reflects a strong interest in helping service members, veterans and their families.

Following medical school at Northeast Ohio Medical University, he was an ocular motility fellow at the Veteran’s Hospital in Cleveland in the mid 1980s and later served as a consultant to a VA hospital in Philadelphia.

From 1998-2001, he was a senior scientist studying eye movement disorders at the National Eye Institute and a consultant in pediatric ophthalmology at both The National Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed Army Medical Centers in Bethesda, Md.

Although now only occasionally providing consultative care to soldiers and veterans, his main role is serving in an advisory capacity with the Vision Center of Excellence.

“It’s satisfying for me to be part of such a collaborative effort with other eye care experts from around the country and, of course, to know we are helping these men and women who have served and sacrificed for our country,” he said.

Vision Center of Excellence

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