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Seeing is Achieving

Jan 11, 2017, 11:46 AM by Adele Menichella
Dr. Silverberg and Patient Adam Gross
Ten years ago, pediatric ophthalmologist Mark Silverberg, MD, examined Adam Gross, a six-year-old boy with amblyopia, or “lazy eye.” The doctor put his young patient on a strict two-year treatment program. Today, defying expectations, Adam has grown into a formidable water polo player at Santa Barbara High School; known by teammates and opponents for his laser-like focus in the pool. 

Adam’s remarkable ability to spot opportunities to pass to unguarded players renders him especially dangerous. The team leader in assists for two consecutive years, last season Adam achieved a “50/50,” referring to the number of goals and assists he garnered. The left-handed attacker has attracted the attention of college coaches and in July, Adam was invited to represent Team USA in Berlin at the European Maccabi Games, a premier international competition for Jewish athletes.

Though Adam’s mother Randy recollects noticing that her son’s “right eye was squinty from the time he was a baby,” she and her husband Howard, like many parents of children with monocular (one-eyed) vision, didn’t realize anything was amiss until their family pediatrician (Gerard Brewer, MD) referred Adam to Dr. Silverberg.

If left untreated amblyopia causes permanent sight impairment. Early detection, before age seven is necessary to optimize the development of depth perception and stereoscopic vision.

According to Dr. Silverberg, the eventual transformation of Adam’s vision was not a given. “The weak eye was 20/100,” says Dr. Silverberg, “so we immediately started aggressive intervention in order to redeem his sight.” Treating Adam’s amblyopia would not require surgery, but rather a long-term daily commitment to retraining the weak eye.

“I told Randy that her son’s success depended upon the cooperation of both child and parents,” says Dr. Silverberg. “You need diligence – and vigilance – to do the work every day. Many parents don’t follow through.”

“I was freaked out by the diagnosis,” says Randy, “but I was adamant, thinking ‘There’s no way my son is going blind.’”

Randy, an experienced motivator (Adam has four older sisters) disguised her vigilance behind a relaxed veneer. “He didn’t particularly want to wear his patch every day,” she says, “so I tried to make it as fun a process as I could.” Under his mother’s direction, Adam’s eye covering became the “after school pirate patch” and visual tracking and eye-hand coordination exercise sessions became his “video game time.”

“I didn’t mind the video games,” smiles Adam, adding, “I never grasped how serious the eye condition was.” For over a year, he wore eyeglasses “strapped to my head, with one strong thick lens, the other clear glass,” Adam remembers. “I wasn’t much of an athlete on land,” he adds wryly.

“You need peripheral vision to play water polo, baseball, or basketball,” says Howard, adding, “Adam could always throw a ball but I worried about his eyesight.”

Gradually, Adam’s weak eye grew stronger and his binocular vision kept improving. Finally, during an exam at Dr. Silverberg’s office two years later, a nurse declared the program a success. Randy recalls, “When they told me his vision was 20/20 in both eyes I was ecstatic. I hadn’t known that was even possible!”

As Adam’s vision improved, he discarded his glasses permanently and began to excel at athletics. At age nine, already a strong swimmer, he joined club water polo.

“He’s been devoting himself to the sport ever since,” says Randy.

“My goal every day is to work as hard as I can,” says Adam, who at 5’9” has developed a muscular physique. “My dream is to play at the highest level.”

In his position as attacker, Adam says, “It’s very important at all times to know what’s going on all around, and who’s behind me.” Such awareness is a key component of Adam’s “water polo I.Q.” – his ability to improvise effectively during matches.

Howard and Randy are passionate and vocal presences at poolside during the Dons’ home and away games. “Wherever he’s playing, we’re there to support him,” says Randy.

Howard reflects on his son’s journey from after school pirate to standout water polo player. “It’s uncanny. Adam’s greatest strength in the pool is his vision,” says Howard. “He sees open players who no one else sees.”

Learn more about Pediatric Ophthalmology >