If you watched the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, you might recognize the name of Steve Holcomb, a US bobsled driver who’s bringing the US team back on top of the sport. This year, Holcomb won bronze in the two-man bobsled, which is the first medal for the U.S. team in that race since 1952. He also won gold for the 4-man bobsled at the Vancouver Olympics, the first medal the US had won in that event since 1948.
While you might be surprised at how long the US went without medalling in bobsledding, you might also be surprised to learn that the Olympian who put us back on top almost didn’t have an Olympic career. That’s because early in his career, Holcomb was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease called keratoconus.
Keratoconus is caused when the fibers in front part of the eyeball, called the cornea, begin to thin, causing the cornea to lose its round shape and instead bulge into a cone shape. The thinning of these fibers and the bulging of the cornea causes nearsightedness and astigmatism, as well as other symptoms such as halos around light and blurred vision. The disease occurs in an estimated 1 in 2,000 people, according to the National Keratoconus Foundation.
According to a recent article by Fox News, just as Holcomb’s bobsledding career was taking off about ten years ago, he received the devastating diagnosis that he had keratoconus. It turned out that Holcomb had a severe case of the disease that quickly degenerated his eyesight. Just a few years later, Holcomb’s vision was 20/500. He was unable to read even the top line of the vision chart and was basically driving the bobsled by feel, reports his eye surgeon, Dr. Brian Boxer Walcher.
Other eye surgeons had told Holcomb that he would need a corneal transplant, a surgery that takes several years to recover from. The recovery period was so long that it would essentially end his bobsledding career. Overwhelmed by his loss of eyesight and the fear of injuring his teammates due to his poor vision, Holcomb attempted to take his own life.
Fortunately, Holcomb survived his suicide attempt and was soon introduced to Boxer Walcher who offered Holcomb an alternative to corneal transplants, an experimental procedure called corneal cross-linking. In corneal cross-linking, the cornea of the eye is coated with vitamins, including riboflavin, that aim to strengthen the corneal fibers and reverse conical bulge.
The procedure, in use since 1999 according to the Cleveland Eye Clinic, only takes a couple of hours or less and sometimes results in immediate improvements in vision. Holcomb decided to undergo the procedure, along with having contacts implanted in his eyes. According to Boxer Walcher, Holcomb was able to see better than he had in years after the procedure.
A year later, Holcomb went on to win gold at the Vancouver Olympics.
The type of corneal cross-linking Holcomb underwent is called the Holcomb C3-R. All types of corneal cross-linking are deemed experimental and are still undergoing clinical trials in the United States. The Cleveland Eye Clinic, which is performing clinic trials of corneal cross-linking, notes that the procedure is being performed already in over 400 eye clinics across the world.
While you may not have keratoconus, Holcomb’s story should serve as inspiration for everyone who might be struggling with a vision problem in private. Holcomb’s story reminds us that most eye disorders, even the most serious ones, often have a variety of solutions, if only you seek out the help of a good ophthalmologist.