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Eyesight to the Nearly Blind

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Not many people relish having to wear contacts or glasses, but for Adam Williamson, poor eyesight was more than a headache. The 25-year-old from Garland was paralyzed in a dirt bike accident three years ago, and his worsening vision made for yet another roadblock in his daily life. His morning routine -- shifting into his wheelchair and rolling into a door-less, chair-friendly shower his parents set up on their patio -- became even more challenging when his extreme far-sightedness made him dizzy upon waking and had him struggling to keep his balance. Then there was the soreness he began to experience as he studied for his Richland College finance classes or typed at the computer.

He tried glasses, but as a young man interested in enjoying more independence, not less, having to keep someone on hand to pick up his spectacles if they fell off or wipe them if they got smudged wasn't exactly his first choice. He tried contact lenses, but "I just didn't have the dexterity in my fingers to put them in," he says. "It took three people and 15 minutes to get one contact in, and it was painful because they couldn't tell how much pressure they could put on my eye."

Williamson and his parents -- who, since their son's accident, have spent most of their free time caring for their son and used savings and retirement money to pay for experimental treatments in places as far away as China -- have never been much for settling. So when Adam told his father, Phillip, that he was interested in Lasik surgery, they looked into it. Problem was, he was so far-sighted that Lasik wouldn't work. Next, they talked to a doctor in Virginia Beach about something called a restoration lens, but it turned out those only worked for the near-sighted. "The doctor suggested something called the Crystalens," Phillip said, "But he said it probably wouldn't happen because it's only for old people."

In researching the Crystalens, a lens implant manufactured by Bausch & Lomb that emulates the human eye by moving back and forth to accommodate both short- and long-distance vision and is usually used for cataract surgery, the Williamsons found the Key Whitman Center on Lemmon Avenue. They met with Dr. Jeffrey Whitman, who said that while it was rare to do the implant on young people and even rarer on paralysis victims, he would do it. It would cost $11,000 though, and that was too much.

About a week later, the family got a call from Whitman's office saying that Bausch &Lomb was willing to donate the lens implants and that Whitman, as part of Focus on Independence -- a group of surgeons across the country who donate vision correction operations to victims of spinal cord injuries -- would not charge for his time. So yesterday, Williamson went in for his operation.

"I hope it'll help my balance so I can get up in the morning and not have to worry about getting all light-headed," Williamson said in the waiting room shortly before undergoing the procedure. "It'll be easier to study, and, hopefully, I won't get as sore from looking at the computer."

Whitman said he did the first Crystalens surgeries on patients as young as 13 after the new lens was approved by the FDA in 2003, but this would be the first time he or any other surgeon he knew of had performed on a paralysis victim.

Williamson had the first eye done last week and already noticed a major improvement. "I could see really well far-off in the first few days, " he says, "and it won't even reach its full potential for another three months."

Wednesday's surgery wasn't the first rare procedure he's had done since his accident. His father, an auditor, and his mother, a retired teacher, sprung for trips to Arizona for an experimental magnetic therapy and to China for stem cell implants. They credit the treatments with major improvements in sensation and movement.

"After his physical therapy he could move only his wrists, and he had trouble sitting up because he couldn't control his abs and back muscles," says his father. Now he can sit up, as well as move his hands and upper arms. Williamson was only the 45th person in the world to have the type of stem cell treatment he got in China, and only the 20th to get the magnetic therapy, according to his father.

"I was willing to take the risk," Williamson said, "I don't have a problem going out of the box."

After wheeling him into the operating room, Whitman removed his natural lens and replaced it with a crystal one. The whole procedure took 10 minutes.

We have the slide show here.

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