Army hospital first military center in U.S. to perform sight-saving procedure

The Army's Fort Belvoir Community Hospital this week became the first military facility to perform a recently approved surgery to combat eye disease.

The Virginia-based medical center on Monday completed a corneal cross-linking procedure, which slows the progression of keratoconus — a progressive eye disease that causes the cornea to bulge into a cone-like shape. This new shape deflects light and causes distorted vision, according to an Army news release. In some cases, patients with the disease are unable to wear glasses, and in severe cases, patients require corneal transplants.

Corneal cross-linking was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in April, and the hospital at Fort Belvoir is the only military medical facility in the eastern United States with the machine that can perform the procedure, according to the release.

Military ophthalmologists in the region who are interested in using the machine can train on it at Fort Belvoir. They also can treat affected patients at Fort Belvoir's hospital until they get their own systems.

The minimally invasive procedure takes about 60 to 90 minutes. It uses liquid riboflavin and controlled ultraviolet light to preserve the cornea’s strength by building new collagen bonds, the release said.

The top layer of the patient’s cornea is removed, allowing the riboflavin to penetrate the cornea. A contact lens is then used as a bandage as the cornea heals.

"We are thrilled to extend this treatment option to patients in need," Col. Bruce Rivers, the staff ophthalmologist and program director of the Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Program and Research Center at the hospital, said in the release. Rivers' team was the first to perform the procedure.

West Point Cadet Saverio Macrina was the first patient to receive the treatment at Fort Belvoir, according to the release. Macrina would not have been able to receive his commission without it.

"I'm grateful to the Army for providing me the opportunity to get this surgery," Macrina said in the release. "My West Point doctor told me that, right now, the academy is forced to turn away applicants with the disease. My hope is that they [will] no longer have to do this and that I am the first of many who are helped."

The corneal cross-linking procedure will be available to those on Tricare, including dependents.

"We see a lot of younger patients with keratoconus," Rivers said in the release. "It's important for us to offer this treatment to everyone so we can screen, catch and  treat the disease early before it can do any severe, permanent damage."


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