San Diego Padres outfielder Tommy Pham is the only player in the MLB to play ball with a rare eye condition. Now, he wants to use his story to inspire others with the disease to similarly overcome the odds.
“I’m very fortunate in the MLB with keratoconus, but from my success, I’m able to help others,” he said. “There’s a ton of people with keratoconus who are down and depressed about life because their keratoconus stage may be so bad that they can’t drive anymore. I’m able to be that positive influence on keratoconus patients around the world.”
Looking for answers
A healthy cornea is shaped like a dome. With keratoconus, the cornea bulges out like a cone, affecting the way light reflects in the eye and blurring vision, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. About 1 in 10 people with the condition have a parent with it, too, but eye allergies and excessive eye rubbing are also risk factors. Usually, individuals with keratoconus are diagnosed in their late teens or early 20s, the academy noted.
Pham, now 31, was diagnosed with keratoconus in 2008 after struggling at bat for two seasons. The diagnosis was a relief. He recalled thinking, “I’m definitely [going to] start hitting the ball better when I get my vision right.”
After all, there would be consequences if not. Recalling the pressure, he said, “This is my livelihood — if I don’t play well, I could lose my job.”
First, he asked about LASIK surgery, a procedure approved by the Food and Drug Administration that corrects refractive errors in the cornea. These errors happen when the shape of the cornea and the eye are imperfect, which skews the focus of images on the retina. The result is blurry vision. According to the FDA, the three main types of refractive errors are myopia, hyperopia, and astigmatism. The Mayo Clinic noted it’s the most common type of eye surgery.
Pham’s eye doctor was quick to tell him the difference between those problems and his more complex situation. Through talking to more specialists and doing his own research, Pham was able to get fitted for contact lenses. “I was relieved that now we had a solution to my hitting, but at the same time I was a little frustrated because the whole process of having something in my eye was uncomfortable,” he said.
There are several options, but Pham uses what’s called a glass permeable wave contact lens, which gives him the best acuity while playing baseball but remains uncomfortable.
The part of his treatment that’s been the biggest game changer, though, is a surgery performed in Europe for many years but only recently approved in the United States: corneal cross-linking. (Beforehand, a corneal transplant was the main treatment for keratoconus.)
According to the University of Michigan, the minimally invasive procedure strengthens the collagen fibers in the cornea by using ultraviolet light and eye drops and helps halt the progression of keratoconus. When Pham underwent the 30-minute surgery, it had not been FDA-approved in the U.S. “I knew it was very risky, but I knew from doing my homework how successful it was in Europe,” Pham said.
Now, he encourages others with the disease, including the many aspiring professional athletes in high school who reach out to him on Facebook, to do the same. “You don’t want it to get any worse — you want to jump on that as soon as possible if you’ve been recently diagnosed,” he said.
He explained that he would be open to trying additional experimental procedures, including stem cell treatments that he’s heard are successful at curing keratoconus overseas.
For now, though, he’s raising money so that others who may not be able to afford the thousands of dollars it takes to receive custom lenses and attend doctors’ appointments can get the keratoconus treatment they need. His fundraising efforts are directly benefitting the National Keratoconus Foundation.
“If you can’t afford [treatment], which a lot of people can’t, I would like them to go to the Keratoconus Foundation and look for help,” Pham said.