At first sight: How Wills Eye doctors helped a blind toddler

Jon Paul Corman, adopted from China with severe vision impairment and thought to be forever blind. He had one eye removed and surgery on the other at age 3. MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer
Jon Paul Corman, adopted from China with severe vision impairment and thought to be forever blind. He had one eye removed and surgery on the other at age 3. MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 28, 2014

Faye Corman was leading the little boy with the deep brown eyes across the train platform when all of a sudden he stopped, planted his feet, and refused to move.

"Come on, Jon Paul," she urged him. No luck.

She and her husband had adopted the 3-year-old from China a few months before, and communication was still tricky. There was the language barrier, sure, but also the boy was blind - and always had been, as far as anyone knew.

He'd just had a second surgery at Wills Eye Hospital, but the doctors did not hold out much hope that he would see.

Suddenly, Jon Paul leaned forward, almost as though he were looking at something - looking? - and reached down to the concrete floor of the PATCO station in Westmont.

He picked up a shiny, silvery gum wrapper.

His mother started to cry.

An opacity

It all started with Camille. The Cormans adopted her from China in 2005, and in a few years they were eager to adopt again.

But in the intervening period, China and other countries had started to have second thoughts about the large numbers of children headed to the United States.

This time around, the adoption agency told the Cormans Chinese officials no longer considered them good candidates, Faye Corman said.

The reason? Because her husband was blind.

Never mind that Michael Corman, an accomplished lawyer and pianist, was a loving father to his daughter. The foreign adoption door seemed to be closed.

Then the family learned about an agency in Wilmington, Madison Adoption Associates, that specializes in finding homes for children with special needs. The Cormans, who live in Barrington, Camden County, approached the agency about adopting a visually impaired child.

"We said a lot of prayers," said Faye Corman, a product steward at DuPont.

It took many months of paperwork and advocacy, but finally in February 2011, the Cormans traveled to Fuzhou, in Fujian Province, a few hundred miles northeast of Hong Kong, to meet Jon Paul.

The records from the orphanage had said something about an "opacity" in one eye. But when the couple met their son, it was clear he was pretty much blind in both eyes: running into walls, feeling his way up stairs, unable to see food on his plate.

Not to worry. Michael Corman, who in 1991 became the first blind graduate of Rutgers University law school in Camden, could help him learn to read braille. And his wife, thinking ahead, had already made an appointment for Jon Paul at Wills Eye, founded in 1832 as the country's first eye hospital.

Michael Corman had been treated there as a child for his congenital blindness, and he credits Wills Eye physicians for giving him some degree of light perception.

It was hard to know just when to make Jon Paul's appointment because the final adoption date was uncertain, but Faye Corman nailed it. Four days after landing on U.S. soil, her son went to the big, curved-front building on Walnut Street.

That is when things got complicated.

Plastic brains

Alex V. Levin never gets tired of watching that first moment when the bandages come off and a formerly blind child is able to see.

Chief of pediatric ophthalmology and ocular genetics at Wills Eye, he frequently travels abroad to perform surgery on needy children. Three weeks ago, he was in the Philippines, where one of his tasks was to remove cataracts from the eyes of a 6-year-old boy.

"You could see the wonderment, the bewilderment in the face of a kid who had not seen his whole life," Levin said.

Increasingly, researchers are learning the brain is more plastic than once thought. Even if a child is blind for the first few years of life, it is possible after corrective eye surgery for the brain to learn to interpret the new influx of visual information.

Still, Levin was not highly optimistic about Jon Paul.

The vision in the boy's left eye was impaired by a thick, cloudy cataract, which might have been there since birth. And his pupil was in the wrong place - at the top of his iris instead of dead center. None of this information was contained in the scant medical records sent by the orphanage.

The boy's right eye - the one with the "opacity" - was even more troublesome. Shrunken and scarred, it "was essentially a dead eye," Levin said. What's more, it contained bits of calcium - a possible indication of cancer.

The Cormans thought they were taking their son in for a one-hour appointment. It turned into a full-day affair, and Wills Eye oncologist Carol Shields said Jon Paul's right eye would have to come out.

Even if there were no cancer, the eye was so malformed it could never see and would start to become painful, she said. The Cormans were stunned.

"I sort of remember the days looking kind of snowy, like looking through a snowy TV screen," Faye Corman said. "We just kind of walked through one day to the next. Just nodding, and hearing things in kind of an echoey way."

Four days after that first appointment, in March 2011, Shields removed Jon Paul's right eye and replaced it with an implant. There was no cancer, fortunately. But if he was ever to have any vision, everything hinged on the remaining left eye.

Elmo and Oscar

Levin performed the cataract surgery in June 2011, and also enlarged the pupil so at least part of it would be located at the center - forming a sort of keyhole shape.

The next day came the gum-wrapper episode on the train platform. Faye Corman did not know just how well the boy could see, but evidently he saw something.

Things have only gotten better since.

Unlike with adult cataract surgeries, Levin did not put a new lens in Jon Paul's left eye, as it was smaller than normal. Instead, the boy was fitted with thick-lensed plastic glasses, which take the place of his natural lens while also protecting the eye.

The prescription has been tweaked several times in the three years since, and Jon Paul has made steady progress.

By last summer, his vision was measured at 20/200, meaning that if a person with 20/20 vision could see something from 200 feet away, Jon Paul could see it from 20 feet. Far from perfect, but great for someone who was starting from near zero. With a new prescription in March, he now appears to be seeing even better, said his mother - unable to tell the story without emotion.

"Miraculous," she said.

"We were very, very blessed," said her husband.

Jon Paul navigates the inside of the family's cozy white house at high speed, excitedly showing visitors his toy helicopter and other playthings. When watching a Sesame Street video on an iPad, he readily identifies the characters Elmo and Oscar, as sister Camille, 9, hovers protectively nearby.

He is learning to read print as well as braille, and attends mainstream public school with the help of an aide.

At first, his parents were concerned he might be autistic, as he sat in one place and flapped his fingers. It now seems that behavior might have been a phenomenon called institutional autism, in which a child develops autisticlike behavior in response to a lack of stimulation, as might be experienced in an orphanage. Developmentally, he has made huge strides since, easily interacting with others.

He watches Wheel of Fortune on TV with his family, and does a dead-on impression of the announcer who calls out "Wheel . . . of . . . Fortune!" at the beginning of each show.

"That's his party trick," Michael Corman said.

The real trick, of course, is being able to see.


tavril@phillynews.com

215-854-2430

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