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Health news and issues in the Ozarks.

Springfield Pediatric Patient First in US to Undergo Laser Cataract Procedure

Erin Crain and his daughter Alyssa at Mercy Springfield/Credit: Scott Harvey

A four-year-old Springfield girl has a new outlook on life after a successful cataract procedure at Mercy hospital. KSMU’s Scott Harvey has more on what officials are calling a milestone in pediatric care.

Alyssa Crain twists atop her father’s lap inside a fourth floor office of Mercy Springfield’s Surgery Center. She's bit bashful today, burying her face in dad’s chest, as he fields questions on her recently-completed surgery.

Erin Crain says his daughter’s diagnosis was shocking.

“At first I was pretty floored. I didn’t realize children could get cataracts. I knew the elderly patients that was pretty common,” Crain said.

Just a few weeks ago, Alyssa became the first pediatric patient in the United States to have cataracts removed using a femtosecond laser. Dr. Wendell Scott is an ophthalmologist at Mercy who performed Alyssa’s surgery.

“Her vision level was good enough where she could walk around and play and eat and things like that. But when you start to looking at detailed vision, and the vision on the eye chart, she was basically legally blind,” Dr. Scott said.  

This spring, Mercy invested in two laser machines, designed to offer a cleaner cut to the lens and an all-around safer cataract procedure. Dr. Scott says the tool is vital in removing a cataract in a child, which can be more complicated than in an adult.

“In children the tissue is very elastic, compared to adults, and it can be challenging to perform certain parts of the incision, particularly the incisions in the cataract itself and the capsule of the cataract,” Dr. Scott said.

He compares the traditional technique to tearing plastic wrap in two by stretching it until you pull it apart. But the laser, he says, can make a perfectly round incision without pulling or tearing.

For Alyssa’s father, Erin Crain, the decision between traditional cataract removal and the laser technique was a no-brainer, noting he was more apprehensive about Alyssa being put under anesthesia.

“[The doctor] explaining the way the surgery worked I was actually pretty excited for that, because, as he said it was done by hand and basically a really sharp knife. Where with this it was a computer-guided laser, brief-second burst, did exact cuts exactly where it was supposed to be done. So that part I felt very safe about,” Cain said.

Prior to the surgery, Alyssa struggled to identify the amount of fingers her father was holding up at the end of the hallway. Now, she can spot snow-capped peaks from miles away, as recently demonstrated on a trip to the Rockies.

Dr. Scott feels laser cataract surgery is such an advantage over the manual technique, that he foresees it becoming the standard of care.

Mercy ophthalmologists are now planning a research project to demonstrate that femtosecond laser cataract surgery can be performed safely in pediatric patients. The study will involve 20 patients, ages 18 and younger, who are scheduled for routine cataract removal.