Keep your eye on the ball: Chicago Bulls, White Sox team eye doctor weighs in on treating athletes

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R Tracy Williams, OD, FAAO, has been team optometrist for the Chicago Bulls and White Sox for over 20 years. He details how treatment of professional athletes is different than the general public in an exclusive interview with Optometry Times.

Novice athletes with a serious love for their game have 1 dream: to make it to the majors. For 1 low vision specialist, the dream came true in the form of eye care.

R Tracy Williams, OD, FAAO, has been a team eye doctor for the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox for over 20 years, working with some of the teams' best players, like Michael Jordan and Frank Thomas. In an interview with Optometry Times, he details a typical day treating athletes, what prevalent eye issues they encounter, and how this work differs from treating the general public.

Editor's note - This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Jordana Joy:

Hi, everyone. I'm here today with Dr Tracy Williams, executive d irector of Spectrios Institute for Low Vision in Wheaton, Illinois. He has served as team optometrist for the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls professional sports teams for over 20 years. Well, first, I would like to thank you for being here today, Dr Williams. It's a pleasure to have you.

R Tracy Williams, OD, FAAO:
Pleasure to be with you, Jordana.

Joy:
Super. So let's start out how did you get started working with professional sports teams?

Williams:
Only because I'm a low vision specialist. Isn't that a wacky thing to say? What do you mean low vision specialist? These guys have perfect vision. I was in Chicago and I have to tell you that when I was a child, I played baseball. I was a White Sox fan. Can you imagine that? I always wanted to play for the Chicago White Sox, and again, I played baseball away through high school. I was getting pretty close, but unfortunately, I lacked one thing: talent. So thank God, my folks said to me, "You better have a backup plan." I was so lucky to be an optometrist.

When I was in optometry school, my last year I did an internship at The Chicago Lighthouse and I caught the fever to work with children and adults with vision loss. Then I got the opportunity, I had two great doctors, 1 was Dr Al Rosenbloom, the late great Al Rosenbloom, who was the president of our optometry school and a great low vision specialist who I so admired. I had a hereditary retinal specialist. His name was Jerry Fishman. They both encouraged me to go on and told a pack of lies, and I got accepted to train with Eleanor Fay, who is credited with coining the term low vision and I went and I learned, you know, how to do vision rehabilitation. I came back to Chicago, and I had a lot of jobs, but one of my jobs was I was in a top ophthamological practice. There was a retinal specialist who was referring patients to me and one day he called me up on the phone and he said, "Hey, you seem to be squeezing every last ounce of vision out of my patients. How would you like to try the Chicago White Sox?" That's when I collapsed to the floor, and I think I turned into Barney Fife. The next thing I knew I was going off to spring training in Sarasota, [Florida]. Well, that sort of worked out for the year and I learned a lot of things about sports vision.
I was always interested in the [American Optometric Association, or] AOA Sports [and Performance] Vision group as well. But because Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the White Sox, also owned the Bulls, at the end of that season, they asked me if I wanted to try my hand with Chicago Bulls. Oh my God was that fortunate because that was during the Jordan years.

So when I think back, I think by the grace of God, all those things happening to me helped my true mission, which is helping children and adults with vision loss, because we're a Chicago White Sox charity and Bulls charity. Through that network, we've been able to help a lot of people with vision loss.

Joy:
For sure. So what does your day to day look like with any given team?

Williams:
Well, when you're a team doctor, the first big event is the spring training. The 13th [of February,] they fly me to Phoenix, [Arizona] and I'll be going to Glendale. The White Sox share a stadium with the Dodgers. I need to get into bed early because at 5 o'clock in the morning, we'll begin giving eye examinations and physicals to all the coaches and players and whatnot, because teams have to check all of the players and coaches before they go on the field. So that's what I do. I'll be in spring training, seeing the pitchers and catchers, the 40-man roster; the pitchers and catchers first and then the position players kind of straggle in and then I'll come back in a few more weeks and I'll do rookie, Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A.

What I specifically do is I make sure, first of all, that their eye health is good. You want to make sure that they are healthy and you want to make sure if they need any correction, whether it's contacts or glasses, that they're seeing very well. Sometimes we move into like working with the conditioning coaches and strength coaches and we work on eye types of training. But what I would share with you that most of the players that we're seeing very, very, very, very good vision. They wouldn't have got to this level unless they had amazing vision. So most of the time pretty good vision.

Joy:
For sure. Are there any type of common vision complications that you see with professional athletes?

Williams:
In the case of maybe baseball first, is it's a grind. It's a long season, right? You want to make sure that from a vision and eye health standpoint, that they're fine, that they're always doing good. So sometimes you see dry eye, ocular allergies. Sometimes, of course, you'll be asked to check a player because they're in a batting slump, just to make sure that something hasn't happened. Again, I'll work alongside the physical training, the strength training and whatnot with a vision station and so on and so forth.
Yeah, there's trauma sometimes. Knock on wood, I've been pretty fortunate. There was one time a blowout fracture, there was sometimes a collision in the outfield where a person might have a facial fracture, or sometimes getting hit in the eye, like a batter hit, and making sure that it didn't actually involve the eye. Basketball sometimes can be tough, because when the players are underneath the basket and elbows are thrown around, sometimes they get hit in the eye. I've seen a hyphema, blood in the front part of the eye.

One time I was sitting enjoying a Bulls game and a player got scratched on the court. My wife said, "Oh, they're gonna call you down there," and sure enough, there was a timeout and I went down to the bench and they handed me a pen light to take a look at the player. I had to take the player down to the clubhouse and fortunately, we had fluorescein, or a topical anesthetic with a dye, and I had the necessary portable slit lamps and stuff I could take a look and certify that the player could go back and play and file out an NBA report. But I've been pretty fortunate that there haven't been any horrendous injuries. We have a team ophthalmologist, and we're pretty good quarterbacks, too.

So for example, in spring training, if a player is playing shortstop and a ball bounces funny and we think there could possibly be some retinal issues, we can get them right into a retinal practice down in the area that we're in and make sure that that player is fine.

Joy:
So how is treating professional athletes different than treating the general public?

Williams:
Wow. Well, I would like to say that the basics are all the same and human beings are human beings. I think that when you know what a specific job description is, that makes you think about how a person visually needs to use their eyes, right? If you're an athlete, like if you're a baseball player, and you're batting, you have a quarter of a second to see the ball and a quarter of a second to swing. I don't think that's the same thing for you. But baseball and basketball and a lot of sports are not static, it's dynamic. So I think there's no question. Also the games, with the speed I was talking about, the games move quickly.

I do think that vision is more than the physical seeing. Sometimes when we hear about a players on the ondeck circle, and what's going through their mind, like their mind's eye, what are they thinking about before they go up to bat? They're definitely watching what's happening with the pitcher and the pitching, and they're looking at what the situation is, but maybe even they're going to visualize in their head what they want to accomplish with their eyes and their swing. What do they want to visualize things?

For example, if your eye is dry, (so many people talk about dry eyes, and this is a common thing in baseball) for me, it's kind of like a swimming pool, where when the wind stirs up and makes the surface wavy and irregular, you can't see down on the bottom of the pool. But when it's smooth, now you can see down to the bottom of the pool. This is why some of the players will kind of blink, blink, blink as they're filling in the troughs to make the surface smooth. You'll have better optics, and maybe, if they have dry eyes, if they can get some of these preservative-free eye drops, and they can apply them in advance or so and so forth, to keep that optical surface smooth.

But what about if you're flying on a plane? The game's over and the plane is dry, are you going to be wearing contacts? Or should you wear glasses and should you lubricate? So I think patient education is helping a person understand how vision works, and I do this with the coaches, like the batting coach and the pitching coach. You just teach them as much about vision as you can. I'm going to tell you that they like it because it helps them connect the dots. Also a team doctor, I'm just a humble servant. I help out and I stay out of the way. If I see variables that I think could possibly help, of course I would talk to the batting coach or the pitching coach, for example, and just say, "Hey, I just thought I would share, here's a concept," or something. Most of the time, they're very receptive to that. And of course, the trainers, we have meetings where before the day, we might just do one on eyes and just just talk about here's how eyes work.

I think that when you spend the time educating the trainers, and the coaches, the manager, you build a relationship. That just goes, too, when I go into the weight room and work with the conditioning coaches. There's a lot of stuff that they ask me, "Hey, what do you think? Do you think if we shoot this thing that shoots balls out at 100 miles an hour before the game, that that could mean that the player will for sure get a hit the first time up instead of the third time." Now, not always because in the major league, they kind of change the speed up a little bit and their balls move a little more. But I'm trying to say anything that can give people confidence; I think the boundaries of vision isn't just the refraction to make sure that we got a great refraction. I absolutely am going to do that and making sure that the eye health is [good], but you can go beyond that. You can help a person be the best steward for their eyes and you can be a person they want on the team because they really feel that you really add to success.

Joy:
Excellent. Alright, well, thank you very much for the time Dr Williams and happy spring training.

Williams:
Yes, I look forward to it. Nice to talk with you.

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