I have new eyes. They were a gift. Literally. Someone died and donated their corneas and now I have them and now I can see.
Last weekend, I spoke at the Donor Tribute for the South Dakota Lions Eye and Tissue Bank. The event brings together donor families and transplant recipients. Packs of Kleenex are provided at each table. There are lots of tears.
The donor families are wonderful, ordinary people from all backgrounds. Their common tie is that someone in their family has recently died and the family and the deceased made the decision that a part of the departed would live on in someone else. Someone they never met, like me.
The more I think about this act the more I am convinced that there is no greater example of Do Unto Others. Not as dramatic maybe as a soldier falling on an explosive to save his buddies or a firefighter giving his life to save a stranger, but the same level of selfless love just the same.
My part in the program was to be the "before and after" example of how these donated tissues can change the lives of the transplantees.
Here is my story. Thank you to my donor and my donor family, whoever you are.
The very short version of my story is this:
I could not see….. And now I can.
I was not blind, but I was getting there.
I could not drive at night.
I could not read the name and number on the back of a football jersey. I couldn’t do my job.
I could see my kid’s faces but they looked like when an angel comes down in a movie… very soft and fuzzy and hazy. I could not tell the color their eyes.
At one point, I literally could not see any of that. But now I can.
I am 44… and up until I was about 39 my eyes were fine. But it started getting foggy. I had “clouds in my eyes”… which sounds like a beautiful line in a song but it’s not that beautiful in real life.
I had a disease called Fuchs Dystrophy. Fuchs is hereditary. My mother had it and if you have it there is a 50-percent chance that your child will have it. I have it and my brother has it, but my other brother and my sister do not (yet) so we’re right at 50-percent.
Dystrophy means degeneration… something breaks down and stops working.
Fuchs Dystrophy clouds the corneas in your eyes and slowly takes away your sight.
Corneas are the clear tissue on the front wall of your eyes. The cornea is about as thick as a credit card and has several layers. The inside layer is very thin and it is supposed to pump water out of the cornea and keep it clear so that light can shine thru the way it is supposed to. But Fuchs Dystrophy shuts down those “pumper cells” and when enough of those don’t work your eyes get water-logged and eventually you start living in a fog.
If you squint your eyes about halfway shut… that is what it is like all the time. It affects everything you do.
When it started it scared me. I couldn’t believe this was happening when I was still relatively young.
In most cases, Fuchs disease doesn’t have those kind of foggy, blinding effects until a person is in their 50s or 60s.
And I was actually more fortunate than my younger brother and my mother... who both had transplants before I did. My brother went first. He was only 29 when he had his first cornea transplant surgery. They did his the hard way. Mine was much easier.
On his they replaced the whole thing… cut it out, put in a new one and stitch it up all the way around. His recovery time was looong. Now it is different… or it was in my case. Now, these very skilled surgeons can go in and replace just that thin, diseased layer of cells. They make a small cut in the bottom of the cornea… go in and remove those dead pumper cells we talked about earlier… and then take a new, donated cornea and fold it over… insert it thru that small cut… lay it open so it forms to the back of the cornea… and then put an air bubble behind it to hold it in place.
All I had to do was go home and lie on my back for 24 hours and stare at the ceiling so I didn’t dislodge the bubble and the new layer of pumper cells.
Literally, the next day the fog had cleared.
It is an incredible procedure. I had one done last April and the other done last August.
And I stand here today and I cannot say thank you enough.
From the cornea tissue donor to the people at the Eye Bank who go out and get these tissues and keep them healthy and get them to the doctors… to the doctors who perform the surgery and the nurses who took care of me….. all the way along the line there are people like you who care enough to help and who make an enormous difference in the lives of people like me.
For information on organ, tissue and cornea donation please visit www.sdleb.org