U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Every year, Air Force Academy Cadets and Airmen are found to have eyesight conditions that can disqualify them from flight status, according to Academy ophthalmologists.
For patients with progressive keratoconus and corneal ectasia, the odds of their careers ending prematurely changed dramatically May 3, when innovative laser surgery, called Collagen Crosslinking, was performed here.
Maj. Marc Neuffer, chief of cornea and refractive surgery at the 10th Medical Group, corrected Air Force pilot Capt. Brent Danner’s degenerative eye condition, keeping him in the air.
“This groundbreaking capability to correct the condition allows us to treat cadets and active duty members here and from surrounding areas,” Neuffer said. “They keep their vision and stay eligible for deployment.”
Cadets diagnosed with the condition are not commissioned unless they receive a waiver, and pilots with the condition are restricted from flying.
“Keratoconus is most commonly found in individuals between 20 and 30 years of age,” Neuffer said. “It eventually leads to loss of sight requiring corneal transplantation.”
Neuffer said the condition typically isn’t diagnosed until after an individual has joined the military and is well into their career. Once discovered, it becomes a duty-limiting condition that can result in medical discharge from active duty service.
Collagen Crosslinking was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2016 as a means to treat progressive keratoconus. The surgery stiffens and stabilizes the cornea which stops the degenerative process. Patients typically keep their vision and don’t require corneal transplants.
For Airmen like Danner, the procedure means the future looks a lot brighter.
“I’m a little nervous because I’m the first patient here to get this done,” Danner said. “I’m also excited and positive because of what it means to my family, my career and for my sight.”
Neuffer’s second patient of the day was a cadet and the doctor said both Danner and the cadet’s surgeries went smoothly. The doctor expects both patients to quickly recover and return to duty.
The Academy is the third Air Force location to offer the procedure. Currently, there are 15 base patients awaiting the procedure. This does not include patients from Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases, or Fort Carson, installations that refer their keratoconus patients to the Academy for the surgery. The Academy is also the referral center for 10 additional Air Force bases in the surrounding states.
“This procedure is a game changer for Airmen who would otherwise have their careers sidelined permanently,” Neuffer said.