Protecting Sight of Premature Life

Dr. Matthew Doerr
Dr. Matthew Doerr

A period of time in the Stiles family’s life that was supposed to be filled with joy transformed into one of fear and uncertainty when their baby, Andy, was born at 27 weeks and immediately confined to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. While a team of physicians worked day and night to stabilize him, innumerable thoughts flew through his parent’s minds: Was he going to survive? Would he have brain damage? Had his lungs developed properly?  In that overwhelming moment, it did not occur to the new parents, amongst all the possibilities, that their baby may not be able to see.

An infant’s eyes are not fully developed until they are almost full-term. When they enter the world prematurely, especially prior to 30 weeks of gestation, they are at much higher risk for abnormal eye development and blindness if they are not followed closely by an ophthalmologist.

“I just remember seeing him hooked up to all these tubes and alarms,” Jan Stiles said of when their baby, Andy, was in the NICU during his first few months of life. “He was so small and helpless and I couldn’t do anything to help him. His care was in the hands of his doctors and nurses.”

Among the team of doctors tending to Andy was pediatric ophthalmologist, Dr. Matthew Doerr. Dr. Doerr was responsible for performing the weekly eye exams Andy needed to ensure that his eyes developed properly, and if necessary, to perform the medical or surgical interventions that might have been necessary to give little Andy his best chance at normal vision.

“I understood their distress. Parents, who haven’t slept in weeks, and are faced with the complicated and difficult situation of an extremely premature baby just want to hear us say that everything will be fine,” said Dr. Doerr, who has now joined Dr. Edwin Wortham V at VPOS (Virginia Pediatric Ophthalmology Specialists) in Richmond. “As a father myself, I understand a family’s need to hear that.”

“Early intervention in the visual development of a child is critical and sometimes easy to overlook. As anyone who works with children knows, they often won’t complain of a problem, so you have to know what to look for and the right questions to ask,” Dr. Doerr explained. Early intervention and prevention of complications can be the difference between normal vision and profound vision loss.

Part of Dr. Doerr’s specialty is being keenly aware of his young patients and adept at recognizing small nuances and signs in their behavior that when addressed early, can make a huge difference down the road. His own three children have helped him better communicate with his patients and their families. Two of his own children have vision problems, which has helped him relate to what some of his patients and their parents deal with every day.

In his practice, Dr. Doerr sees a wide variety of pediatric eye issues ranging from glasses prescriptions, to routine and complicated ocular misalignment, to even surgical and medical management of congenital cataracts and glaucoma. VPOS, under the expertise of Dr. Edwin Wortham, has been helping children and adults with eye problems since 1992. The practice is located across the street from the Stony Point Surgery Center, where the majority of their procedures take place.

Patients like Andy, and many other premature infants like him, are the types of cases that Dr. Doerr finds most rewarding. “Making a difference in a newborn’s life has a profound impact on everyone involved and I’m thankful for the opportunity,” he said. “I enjoy following these children as they grow and doing everything I can to ensure that they continue to see the world clearly.”

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