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National Donate Life Month: Anthony – Cornea Recipient

Boy Born with Scarred Cornea Can See Beautifully Thanks to Cornea Donor

Eye injuries are a constant concern for children and adults who participate in sports. But for a young Illinois resident, the threat of blindness loomed long before he ever took to the field.

Anthony was born with compromised vision due to a scarred cornea, an injury that prevents light from passing through the pupil. As he grew older, his eyesight worsened until his vision was less than 20 percent. Anthony had become an avid soccer player and fan despite his near-blinding eye ailment, but the game was becoming difficult for him to play with such poor eyesight.

When Anthony’s vision became a threat to his safety, he underwent two corneal transplant surgeries to restore his vision. Following the operation, Anthony was reluctant to open his eyes.

“He wouldn’t open either eye because he thought he was blind,” said Anthony’s mom, Tobey. “The only way we could get him to do it was to turn on the TV to the World Cup.”

After being nearly blind for the first six years of his life, Anthony could finally see the world around him, thanks to the generosity of his cornea donor and his skilled medical team.

Anthony is now a teenager preparing to start high school and is taking full advantage of his restored sight. He is an active member of his school’s basketball, cross country and track teams; and he has become a star student as well. Recently, he competed in the Illinois State Science Fair with a presentation on peripheral vision.

Anthony is grateful for his sight every day and enjoys any opportunity he has to share his experience with others. He and his family continue to honor his gift by promoting the Donate Life mission and encouraging others to become registered eye, organ and tissue donors.

Story provided courtesy of Illinois Eye Bank

Maria Abriel: Giving Thanks

I am grateful for the gift of sight and for individuals making the decision to donate life. My vision has been corrected with glasses since the age of 5. While a senior in nursing school I began to have headaches and a decrease in visual acuity that could that required special lenses in my glasses to correct my vision. My optometrist diagnosed me with Keratoconus, a disease that causes the cornea to become cone-shaped. After graduating from nursing school and 2 years into my career I began to have problems reading normal handwriting, increase in headaches and problems while driving.

maria-abriel-largeMy doctor referred me to an ophthalmologist who informed me I had to be placed on a waiting list for a cornea. Thankfully that wait was short lived. In less than a week and the day before Thanksgiving I received my first cornea. An officer that was killed in the line of duty was a donor and a year younger than myself. I will never be able to thank his family enough for honoring his wishes. Five years later I had to receive my second transplant due the disease progression in my non-transplanted cornea.  I was able to schedule surgery due to the increase in the number of donors. This all began 23 years ago and my corneas are great and my vision is corrected with glasses. Without the “gift” from donors I would not have been able to fulfill my life time dream of being a nurse. Thanks to all the donors and for their families making sure their wishes are fulfilled.

Karen Martinez: Cornea Recipient And Volunteer

My story began on a June day in 2013.  Probably well before then, but I remember this one day in particular as the day I realized something was really wrong with my right eye.  I glanced to my right to acknowledge a co-worker in my doorway and immediately realized the vision in my right eye was so cloudy I couldn’t see anything but a silhouette.  I had been experiencing blurriness, halos, cloudiness, burning and an overall gradual decline in my vision for quite some time, which had been diagnosed and treated by my optometrist as dry eye.  On this fateful day, I knew I had bigger problems to deal with.  I immediately contacted an eye specialist in my area and within one week I was sitting in a cornea specialist’s office hearing the news that a recurrent infection had caused irreversible scarring and damage to my cornea; my vision would only worsen.  Thus began my journey through not one, but two, DSAEK (partial) corneal transplants in my right eye.

Karen-MartinezBy the time I underwent my first transplant more than a year later in October of 2014, I was experiencing pain and vision deficiencies demanding that my life revolve around my worsening eye condition.  The pain was constant, I experienced daily headaches, eye exhaustion, extreme light sensitivity and, obviously, my vision itself continued to decline.  My eye condition touched every facet of my life: my marriage, my children, my job, my social life and my ability to remain physically active.  I eventually found myself planning my life around my condition and my days became identified as “good eye days” or “bad eye days.”  I was anxious to have the procedure, get through the recovery and return to living my life the way it was before.

Two weeks after surgery, I was advised by my doctor that my new cornea was not responding or functioning as expected.  At two months post-op, my transplant was deemed unsuccessful and a second transplant procedure was recommended.  I elected to transfer my medical care to Duke Eye Center and began working toward my second transplant with my new surgeon, Dr. Taras Semchyshyn.  In September of 2015, I underwent my second DSAEK corneal transplant performed by Dr. Semchyshyn.  Thus began my second round of recovery complete with multiple applications of anti-rejection eye drops, fingers crossed and high hopes for success.

In the five months since my second corneal transplant, my right eye vision has improved to where it stands now at 20/40 with no correction.  My new cornea is clear with no cloudiness, no halos, no light sensitivity and, best of all, no pain!  I’m able to exercise and run and play with my daughters without fear of injuring myself.  I am able to stay up late and get up early without suffering the painful consequences of a severely swollen cornea.  My life no longer revolves around my troublesome and debilitating eye condition.

I can’t thank both of my donor families enough for choosing to donate their loved ones’ eyes so that others like me might see.  I will always remember to take the time to enjoy and appreciate the visual beauty that surrounds me not only for myself, but also for my donor, whose selfless act of generosity has given me the most precious gift I have ever received.

Read more about what we do, donating tissue and more.

Jerome Wheeler: A Personal Connection

Jerome Wheeler, MIS Surgical Recovery Specialist, has quite a connection to eye donation and corneal transplantation. Jerome’s daily work is recovering corneal tissue needed for transplant. The gift of sight was, and continues to be a very personal journey for Jerome and his family.

jerome-wheeler-large“In 1999, Dr. Terry Kim, Professor of Ophthalmology at Duke University Eye Center told my wife and I that our son, Shane, would be the youngest patient to receive corneal transplant surgery…at 6 days old, Shane’s vision was saved.”

Now, seventeen years later, Shane’s transplant has lasted longer than 90% of patients at Duke University Eye Center! The entire Wheeler family, especially Shane, is looking forward to continued success with this very special gift.

“I am grateful and honored to be part of the system that saved my son’s vision. And I truly believe that my continued service here has a Spiritual impact on the great success/progress my son has experienced.”

Jerome Wheeler

Bill Hirsch: A Second Chance

I am a three-time corneal tissue recipient.

In 1984-85 I had recurring corneal scratches on both eyes from wearing hard contact lenses.  I was diagnosed with Keratoconus.  I began wearing “piggy-back” lenses (a soft contact lens over the cornea with a hard contact lens on top), which worked fairly well for about a year.  In October 1986 and 1987 Dr. Gary Foulks at Duke Eye Center performed corneal grafts (epikeratoplasty) on both eyes.  This worked well with the aid of either glasses or contact lens for about 20 years.

Bill HirschIn late 2006 I began to experience significant glare problems.  Dr. Terry Kim at Duke Eye Center told me that my cornea were getting “wavy”, distorting the light refraction, resulting in glare.  My diminishing ability to see caused numerous problems:   seeing the computer at work, driving safely, reading and watching television.  I had to use binoculars to see the printing on my 32 inch television sitting 9 ½ feet away.  To read the newspaper or a book I used a pair of 5.0 reading glasses and a magnifying glass.

In Spring 2009 Dr. Kim performed cataract surgery and lens implants in both eyes.  The right eye improved to 20/40, but the left eye only 20/200, due to the corneal degeneration.

In 2010 my vision was improved by a pair of hybrid contact lenses (hard center/soft outer portion).  Unfortunately, I had a difficult time removing this type lens and finally had to stop wearing them.  My prescription glasses were no longer helpful, leaving me with no way to correct my vision and significantly impacting my quality of life.

In November 2012, Dr. Kim performed a corneal transplant on my left eye.  The improvement has been stunning—very little glare, much better vision (from 20/200 to about 20/30).  After approximately a one year recuperation, I hope to be fitted with either prescription glasses or contact lenses to get my vision close to 20/20.

Thanks to the work of the Miracles In Sight and its dedicated staff, the amazing medical technology available today and most importantly the caring, thoughtful donors and their families, people like me are able to lead a more normal life once again.  I can’t think of a better legacy to others than to give someone an improved quality of life by being a corneal tissue and organ donor.  I know that I will.

Caroline’s Story: Sight Restored

Dear Donor Family,

My name is Caroline and I am the 52-year-old recipient of your loved one’s cornea. I am writing to thank you for your family member’s gift of not only my sight, but also the light that carries my hopes and dreams. Without this incredible gift I would not be capable of composing this letter today.

Before my transplant, I had been slowly losing my eyesight for several years. My vision loss was caused by an autoimmune disorder that went undiagnosed for over two decades. I was in a great deal of pain every day and had lost almost all my independence. One day I left the house not realizing I had put my clothes on inside out! I was constantly running into things, I had no depth perception and excruciating photophobia. Trying to see the world was like looking through a shattered piece of glass. I was no longer able to work or travel, cook, or even play or read books with my grandchildren. My heart was just broken when on my 50th birthday the doctors told me there was nothing else they could do for me…they said exactly these words…”Maybe someday in your lifetime.”

Almost two years have passed since that diagnosis and today, because of the gift I received, I was able to see my granddaughter for the first time…I mean really see her. My journey has taken me across the country several times and I am at last able to live on my own and read and write (just a little slower). I can take walks by myself and I can bake a magical chocolate cake!

I am having trouble trying to express my overwhelming gratitude, yet keeping in mind the grief that you must still be experiencing. When my Dad passed, I was completely inconsolable, so I want to share a story (true story) with you in hopes that my message of gratitude will be more clear.

“You call me out upon the waters. Your faithful hand will be my guide.”

I was told before the transplant that I would have to wait for my autoimmune disorder to be in “remission” (for lack of a better word) for at least a year before they would consider me as a candidate. As with all autoimmune disorders “remission” is, for me anyway, just another way to say…have your mind, body and heart all on one page. So I moved 2000 miles…to the Atlantic Ocean. I worked on myself and I waited…I even called my place “The Waiting Place.” As I was there off-season, the beach was completely empty…no tourists, just blue skies and beautiful sunrises and sunsets. I felt “safe” walking on the beach although I could not see…occasionally I would walk through fishing lines or a sandcastle without realizing. And it never failed that when I did venture out I would run into that young couple that would ask me to take their picture and I would have to sadly decline. In December, a little over two months post-transplant, I took a walk on the beach. To be completely honest, at that time I was out of eye pain for the first time in over twenty years, however my sight was still much distorted and I was questioning whether or not I had done the right thing. The doctors had all said it was a high risk and that I could lose the eye if the graft was not successful. On that day in December, with NO ONE within miles of me…I walked upon the following message written in the sand.

“You call me out upon the waters. Your faithful hand will be my guide”

One week later, my vision in the operative eye was 20/40.

THANK YOU ALL for this incredible life gift. Because of your compassion… I am a “walking miracle” and my daughter and grandbabies have their “Baba” back.

Fair Winds and Following Seas,


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