May 14, 2014

Up and in: UAB saves baseball player's eye, vision
An inside pitch and a slip off the bat deliver a potentially blinding blow -- and a message for vision safety.

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“It was just another regular day of practice, and we were doing some bunting drills,” Meade Kendrick said.

He’s a red-shirt freshman baseball player at Samford University. Those drills were during fall practice last year, when Kendrick’s baseball career almost came to an end.

“It was my last bunt of the day, and the pitching machine kind of threw me a pitch that was up and in a little,” he recalled. “It hit the top of my bat and went straight to my eye.”

The ball hit directly on Kendrick’s left eye. It smashed the orbital bone and did severe damage to the retina and surrounding tissue. Kendrick fell back against the batting cage and put his hand to his eye.

“Coach told me to take my hand off my face, and it was just covered in blood,” Kendrick said. “He asked me to open my eye, and when I did, I didn’t see anything, just pure white. I remember asking if my eye was open, and he said yes. That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

“He had what is called a severe closed-globe injury to the eye,” said Doug Witherspoon, M.D., a professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Ophthalmology. “It’s basically a blunt-force injury, a severe contusion injury to the eye from the impact of the baseball that he was bunting.”

Kendrick was referred to Witherspoon after first going to the UAB Callahan Eye Hospital emergency room, the only 24-hour, seven-day-a-week ocular emergency facility in Alabama.

Witherspoon, an international expert in eye trauma, directs the hospital’s Ocular Trauma Center, one of only two such centers in the nation, as designated by the American Society of Ocular Trauma.

“We have developed unprecedented expertise through the volume of patients treated,” Witherspoon said. “New knowledge, new techniques and specialized tools have been created to better manage eye trauma. Surgeons here have demonstrated that cases deemed hopeless by others may be at least partially repairable.”   

Kendrick’s case wasn’t hopeless, but it was severe.

“It’s a potentially blinding injury, and he was legally blind for a number of weeks afterward,” Witherspoon said. “We had to treat him pretty intensively with powerful anti-inflammatory medications. He didn’t require surgical treatment, although that was a possibility early on.”

And Witherspoon prescribed rest. Lots of rest. Kendrick spent a week in bed, avoiding any stress on his eye. He wasn’t allowed to read or to move about. He couldn’t even sneeze without risk to the slowly healing tissue in his left eye.

Kendrick couldn’t see anything with that eye for the first couple of days. As vision returned, the eye first was rated 20/200, the threshold to be declared legally blind. As the medications and rest worked, his vision improved to 20/80 and then plateaued. After three weeks at 20/80, Kendrick began to doubt whether he would experience any further improvement.

“I went back for another follow-up visit, and they said I had improved to 20/30,” he said. “Without a frame of reference, I hadn’t even realized. I’m now at 20/20, but it took four months from the date of the injury to get back to 20/20.”

And Kendrick is back on the baseball diamond, slowing returning to the game he loves. He wears shatter-resistant lenses now — to protect his eyes. The first couple of times in the batter’s box were tough.

“It took me about a week or two of seeing a ball coming at me again to get comfortable,” Kendrick said. “I remember flinching at a couple of balls that were nowhere close to me, but now I’m feeling a lot better.”

Kendrick is at risk for vision issues as he gets older due to the injury. He’ll need to be closely monitored for an increased risk for glaucoma and retinal tear detachment. He’s got that covered — his father is an optometrist, and Kendrick is planning a career in optometry as well. His experience as an eye patient at UAB has given him a unique perspective.

“It made me realize how amazing the eye is — to go from where I was to where I am now,” he said. “From not being able to see my finger in front of my face to seeing everything the way I could before, that’s pretty amazing.”

Kendrick will wear protective lenses for the rest of his baseball career, and recommends them for all athletes in any sport. Witherspoon concurs.

“Wear eye protection at every chance that you can,” he said. “Seek professional help immediately if there is a suspicion of significant eye injury, and then follow your doctor’s advice after that.”
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