His disability forced a major career change, one that has benefited thousands. Dr. John Shepherd since 2008 has been director of the Weigel Williamson Center for Visual Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. It’s America’s only low-vision clinic situated on a medical center campus, drawing patients from all over the Midwest.
“Low vision” occurs when a person experiences a major, permanent reduction in visual function that eyeglasses can’t correct but special devises or aids can somewhat improve. The U.S. has more than 15 million people experiencing impaired vision. Shepherd’s center (and others like it) offer this population such things as computer enhancement software, high-tech magnifiers, “talking” devices, and large-print books, calculators, and clocks, and practical help making in-home modifications.
In a telephone interview, 51-year-old ophthalmologist Shepherd said, “Because of chronic back and knee pain years ago, I was no longer able to do eye surgeries. Eventually, doctors were unable to fix my (back and knee) pain. I had to learn to live with it. There was a grieving in the loss I had. My passion for low-vision (work) arose out of this because it had a parallel for me.”
As an ophthalmologist, Shepherd realized he couldn’t do much long-term to help people with chronic, irreversible eye conditions, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, stroke or retinitis pigmentosa. And he didn’t have the low-vision training to help them live best they could with those conditions. He eventually received the training and accepted his current position, one that didn’t require him to do surgery.
He said, “We’ve helped over 3,500 people since 2008. Our ‘average’ patient is in their 80s and has macular degeneration. We also help people with employment issues and children who need help with IEPs, for example.” The Center has Nebraska and Iowa satellite locations. Shepherd regularly speaks at American Academy of Ophthalmology meetings and is a University of Nebraska Medical Center assistant professor.
The U.S. doesn’t have many low-vision clinics because so few professionals have the training or a financial incentive to enter the field. He said, “Evaluating low-vision is a time-consuming endeavor. I usually spend at least an hour with patients and see perhaps only five a day. Before coming here, I used to see up to 30.” He said readers can learn more about low-vision services by asking an eye doctor or their state service for the blind or visually impaired.