Published: Feb. 10, 2012
Updated: Feb. 10, 2012
On July 13, 2010, Duke ophthalmologist Terry Kim’s phone rang, and on the other end of the line was former Duke basketball player Jon Scheyer, who in his senior year had helped lead the Blue Devils to the 2010 NCAA basketball championship.
Kim had examined Scheyer’s eyes every year since he joined the team as a freshman. On the phone, Scheyer didn’t sound like himself. He told Kim that while he was working out with an NBA Summer League team, another player had poked him in the eye.
Then he put the team doctor on. The doctor said that Scheyer showed signs of optic nerve damage -- a very serious injury.
Kim couldn’t believe it. Optic nerve damage usually happens with serious trauma, like a car accident. Eye pokes happen all the time in basketball, and they usually aren’t that big of a deal.
Scheyer was about to fly to Chicago to be with his family, so Kim put him in touch with a friend and fellow ophthalmologist Kirk Packo, MD, in Chicago, who the next day confirmed the bad news. Scheyer had a very severe injury, called a partial optic nerve head avulsion, that would likely cause a permanent decrease in vision and visual field.
Kim knew this type of injury could be devastating for Scheyer’s hopes of a pro basketball career. He flew to Chicago the next day to see Scheyer and his family himself.
“When I had my eye injury, the first person I called was my trainer from Duke to get ahold of Dr. Kim,” Scheyer says. “He is the only eye doctor I’ve seen my whole life. Since he flew out to Chicago to see me in the hospital, he has guided me through my recovery process. He has been not only a great doctor to have but a great friend as well.”
In Chicago, Kim examined Scheyer’s eyes and spent the entire day with him and his family, explaining that the injury was serious but that it was too soon to tell the extent of Scheyer’s vision loss.
“Not once did Jon cry. He showed such determination to do everything he could to make this better and to accept the consequences,” Kim says. “To see Jon, barely out of college, face this potentially career- threatening eye injury with such maturity and optimism really impressed me.”
Scheyer’s determination in the face of this injury inspired Kim to take the first steps toward developing the Duke Sports Vision Center for Excellence to offer diagnosis, treatment, and support for athletes of all levels with eye injuries and eye diseases.
Whereas in the year and a half after his injury Scheyer saw 14 different doctors in six different states, Kim envisions the new Duke center as a one-stop location providing diagnosis and treatment of problems of the optic nerve, cornea, lens, retina, and eyelids or orbit. Low-vision rehabilitation services would also be offered at the center.
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, who are supporters of the center, suggested extending the services to members of the military. “Athletes and military members have extraordinary talents and need extraordinary vision to use their talents,” Kim says. “They both have to function at a higher level than the average person.”
Kim sees a need to standardize treatment and follow-up of eye injuries and diseases for this special group of people.
Injury prevention education as well as research would be part of the mix too. Many athletes, including children, don’t wear protective eyewear, and many sports leagues don’t require it. Education could help change that.
Kim also sees the center as a natural place to conduct peer-reviewed research regarding recovery rates from serious sports-related eye injuries, as well as evaluation of new devices, such as “vision training” aids that purport to improve hand-eye coordination.
Formal support groups for athletes and military members with eye injuries will round out the center. After Scheyer was injured, he heard that a player for the Baylor University women’s basketball team had just suffered a similar blow. He contacted her to offer his support. “I just wanted to tell her that there was someone out there who had a similar injury and could answer any questions she might have. When I first had my injury, I didn’t know of many instances of other basketball players getting injured in the eye. When you’re going through a tough time, it’s great to have a couple of people you can lean on,” Scheyer says.
One finger poke changed Scheyer’s life; he lost much of the sight in his right eye. But it hasn’t kept him from basketball. After completing vision rehabilitation (he says adjusting to his changed depth perception was the biggest challenge), Scheyer landed a spot with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the NBA development league team for the San Antonio Spurs. He started in 19 of their 24 final games, averaging more than 13 points in 33 minutes of action per game. The team advanced to the finals of the league’s championship.
“I don’t want this injury to slow me down. Because of this injury, I’ve met so many people who are completely blind, or blind in one eye. Mine isn’t the best situation, but mine isn’t the worst either,” he says.
Scheyer is now beginning a new challenge as shooting guard for Maccabi Tel Aviv, a team in Israel’s Super League, which is a member of the Euroleague.
“When I got injured, I remember being on the ground and feeling pretty scared. I told myself that when I can get back and am allowed to play, I’m gonna give it everything I have,” he says. “Now when I go out and play, I’m playing for that person on the ground.”
Kim and Scheyer hope the new Duke Sports Vision Center for Excellence will help many other athletes have equally triumphant outcomes. “There’s such a great need for a center like this,” Scheyer says. “I’ve been able to see the best eye doctors in the world, between Dr. Kim and my specialists in Chicago and Memphis. But for people who aren’t as lucky as me, there’s a need to have one place where they can go to get the best care and support.”