NAEVR Lauds Project Gemini Experience

by James Jorkasky of the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR)

"I was honored as the Executive Director of the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR) to participate in Project Gemini in late May, just prior to Memorial Day, in which blinded United States (U.S.) veterans traveled to England for a week to meet with blinded United Kingdom (U.K.) veterans. The program, now in its second year, is a joint initiative between NAEVR member organization Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) and Blind Veterans UK (formerly known as St. Dunstan’s). Its objective is to provide veterans who have recently lost their sight with opportunities to interact with men and women who have led happy and prosperous lives despite their blindness and can serve as role models. During the week, the veterans discussed blind rehabilitation and readjustment training, adaptive technology for the blind, and vision research, as well as visited attractions throughout England, many of which provided special tours in which the participants touched objects being described, such as armor, jewels, and architectural elements.

This year, the four American Army veterans who were blinded in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), including Steven Baskis, Dexter Durrante, Timothy Hornik, and Mark Shrand, interacted with UK veterans Billy Baxter (blinded in Bosnia), Darren Blanks, Bill Drinkwater, and Ken Facal. BVA Director of Government Relations Tom Zampieri, Ph.D., who is blind, joint Department of Defense (DOD)/Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Vision Center of Excellence (VCE) Director Colonel Donald Gagliano, M.D., and VCE Associate Director of Rehabilitation and Reintegration Bobbi Hillen also participated. Blinded Veterans UK’s Cadet Youth Challenge Project Officer Colin Williamson and Membership Manager Simon Brown served as hosts. On May 21, Moorfields Eye Hospital in London hosted the delegation, discussing groundbreaking research to save and restore sight. The visit was hosted by Peng Tee Khaw, M.D., Ph.D., who serves as Moorfield’s Director of Research and Development and Director at the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre, based at Moorfields, and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. Dr. Khaw, who also serves as the President of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), commented on the session:

“It was a pleasure and an honour to meet these brave American and British veterans, most of whom have lost their sight while serving their countries. We were able to explain to them some of the state-of-the-art research being carried out here and at other NIHR research facilities elsewhere in the country. The work we discussed included some exciting and positive developments in regenerating damaged and diseased nerve cells and new stem cell transplantation and drug delivery discoveries which may in the future lead to people with loss of vision having it restored.”
Just prior to the trip, NAEVR released to Capitol Hill its study entitled Costs of Military Eye Injury, Vision Impairment, and Related Blindness and Vision Dysfunction Associated with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) without Eye Injury. Based on published data from 2000-2010, the total incident cost of eye injury each year has been $2.282 billion, yielding a total cost to the economy over this timeframe of $25.107 billion. For me, Project Gemini was a remarkable and life-affirming experience that validated the importance of such studies. It also enabled me to reflect on the very reason for NAEVR’s existence-to ensure funding for vision research that brings hope to patients."

Project Gemini Class of 2012. Photo courtesy of James Jorkasky.
Project Gemini Class of 2012. Photo courtesy of James Jorkasky.