Eleven-year-old Mason Hall was diagnosed with dyslexia at the end of third grade. He got headaches after reading for less than five minutes.
He had eye and hearing tests done at his school and at his pediatrician’s office, but nothing was ever a red flag, said his mom, Brooke Hall.
“They always said he had perfect vision,” she said.
Dr. David Gerchak at Eye Care of Brown County found something else: convergence insufficiency.
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“It’s a condition where we need to be able to train his eyes to be stable, coming together and going apart,” Gerchak said.
“It’s sort of like seeing double — not completely, there’s sort of a blur to it, but your brain is using a tremendous amount of cognitive power just to make sense of what you’re seeing.”
Brooke, Mason, his younger brother, Max, and Gerchak sat in a small room with a large 3-D television. Gerchak ran Mason through a series of games on the screen to allow for Mason’s visual systems to expand.
“It’s a matter of being able to have normal control around six muscles around the eye, plus the focusing mechanism of the eye,” Gerchak said.
This was Mason’s fifth vision therapy session with Gerchak. In addition to 3-D activities on the screen, Gerchak was having him walk a line or catch a ball wearing special glasses that shift images up.
“He can see like a hawk. That’s why they passed him through all of those tests, because young people have a tremendous ability to focus through even high amounts of prescription. But when you have to do that, it affects your eye alignment,” Gerchak said.
“That’s something we know how to fix. That’s 95 percent treatable. That’s what we’re doing here.”
The fact that Mason was diagnosed with dyslexia should have been a sign to test his eyes further, Gerchak said.
“Many people who struggle with eye alignment problems actually exhibit as if all the symptoms overlap with dyslexia or ADHD, and so you start to see a lot of people that are labeled with some of these other diagnoses that might just have very real visual obstacle,” he said.
“I never say people don’t have dyslexia,” he said. “The only thing dyslexia means to all providers is that the word itself means ‘difficulty reading.’ Beyond that, is there something underlying?”
Brooke brought Mason to see Gerchak after she had an eye appointment with him at the Cummins LiveWell Center in Columbus, where Gerchak also works.
“He asked me if my kids had exams. I said, ‘Oh, they’re fine. They had exams at the doctor.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s not really enough.’ We got to talking and it seemed like it made sense to have Mason’s eyes tested,” she said.
After his fifth appointment, Brooke said she was starting to tell a difference in Mason because he wasn’t complaining about headaches as much while he was reading.
By September, Brooke said Mason, a sixth-grader, was reading at a seventh-grade reading level. He was previously reading two grade levels behind.
“The vision therapy has definitely helped with that,” Brooke said.
Mason also receives extra help at school for his dyslexia. “The credit goes to him, too, for his hard work,” she said.
Beneath the surface
Dr. Gerchak opened Eye Care of Brown County in 2009 at Salt Creek Plaza, on the Willow Street side of the Brown County YMCA building.
It’s a low-cost clinic that does not bill insurance. Patients pay a flat fee.
“I am able to keep the costs lower and I am able to keep the cost of eye exams lower as well because I am not working through the insurance companies,” Gerchak said.
“If you come to my practice, you’ll realize right away that it’s basically me just trying to take care of you the best way I can,” he said.
Gerchak also had vision problems when he was younger: convergence insufficiency, same as Mason.
“It caused me a lot of eye straining, headache and reading fatigue. It turns out about 7 percent — and that’s a conservative estimate from the American Optometric Association — suffers from that condition,” he said.
“I don’t want to say it’s being ignored, but I can tell you that I’ve had lots of eye exams when I was younger and I never got any help with the condition I had, and so I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 34 years old.”
That’s when Gerchak — an electrical engineer and Cummins employee — decided to go back to school to study optometry.
He’s one of only six doctors in the state who practices vision therapy, which goes beyond a typical eye exam.
“I take a little more time and go a little more in depth with specific issues like headaches and eye strain, reading fatigue. Those are the kind of questions that I look into to see if there might be something beyond just a prescription for glasses,” he said.
Exams have three main parts: determining a prescription; examining the overall health of the eye; and working with people who have eye alignment and focusing issues.
“The eye gives us this wonderful window into the body,” Gerchak said.
“The vasculature, as far as the eye and the blood vessels, are the same size and shape as the blood vessels in your liver and your kidney. It gives you an idea of what’s going on throughout your body.”
Champion of underdog
Gerchak said there are three types of behavior typical of someone struggling with a visual obstacle: Acting out to avoid doing work; being able to do the work, but not doing it well; or doing the work well, but taking longer to do it.
“I was the kid who would go home and study for hours (just) because that’s how long it took me to do my homework,” Gerchak said.
There’s a stigma attached to not being able to read and write, he said.
“A lot of people won’t even tell you they have difficulty reading, just because they think somehow, they’re just not smart enough. It has nothing to do with that whatsoever. These are just very real obstacles that people encounter,” he said.
“What I am, all the time, trying to do is let people know they are smart, let children know, ‘You’re capable. You can do this.’”
Dr. David Gerchak at Eye Care of Brown County offers appointment-based and emergency care from his office at 103 Willow St.
He does not accept insurance. Patients pay a base fee.