Corneal transplants provide recipients new outlook

Many of us take our vision for granted. While we may need glasses or contacts to read the newspaper or to see the television across the room, the problem is so easily corrected, it rarely even registers as a problem at all. We never pause to think about how heavily we rely on our sense of sight. But imagine if something went wrong and you couldn’t see. Many people have experienced this scenario for themselves. Fortunately, corneal transplants can correct many eye problems. That’s where people like Lori Miller, the executive director at the Oklahoma Lions Eye Bank, step in to help. The Oklahoma Lions Eye Bank is the only eye bank in the state, and they opened  their doors in 1957. Today they provide corneas for people not only in Oklahoma, but they also ship them internationally to countries that lack the donor base and facilities available here.

Miller described the donation process, “We get notified on every death from age 2 to 70 in the state. As long as nothing outright rules an individual out as a donor, we start the process of getting a donation.”  Things that would rule out a possible donation would be lack of permission from the family or issues with the donor’s health. “Once we are able to harvest the corneas, they last for up to 14 days. However, we try to clear them within 3 or 4 days.”

Matching corneas to those in need of transplant is unique in many ways. For example, there is no need to match blood types between donors and recipients because the cornea is not vascular and contains very little blood. One of the primary matching criterias is the relationship between the age of the donor and recipient. “We try to keep to within 10 years of the donor’s age,” Miller said. The end goal is to make the transplant last the recipient the rest of his or her life.

Below are two very different stories about people who have been recipients of a corneal transplant. They show how this simple surgery can greatly improve quality of life.

Melissa’s story:

Melissa Weathers of Duncan had her first corneal transplant in 2009 after her keratoconus caused her left eye to rupture. Her second transplant happened in 2015 after the disease robbed her right eye of sight entirely. Keratoconus is an eye disease that causes the cornea to gradually thin over time. As the cornea thins, its typical rounded shape begins to bulge and take on a cone-like formation. Vision quality deteriorates daily as the disease further distorts the cornea.

“Without a transplant, I wouldn’t have been able to see.” Melissa said. “I work with computers all day. I wouldn’t have been able to do my job.” Fortunately, she was able to receive her transplant and now has 20/25 vision in her left eye. Her right eye is at 20/50 and should continue to improve. 

Maintaining the new corneas is easy and takes only minutes per day. Her routine now includes about 10 eye drops spaced out over the course of the day. Each eye gets one “transplant drop” daily to prevent the body from rejecting the new tissue, and she needs to put lubrication drops in her right eye every three hours or so. 

She said that she had never thought about being an organ donor until she got her transplant. “I never thought it was that important.” She said. “Now I’m such a huge advocate for organ donation. I urge everyone to check that box on your license. Your organs won’t be doing you any good after you’re gone, and you will be helping out someone in need immensely.”

Shawn’s story:

Shawn Lee of Lone Grove received his corneal transplant when he was only 10 years old. His right eye became infected, and the doctor told his family the problem was pink eye. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. “I’d got a scratch on my cornea that had somehow become infected.” Shawn said.

“The doctors said they thought it was very rare bacteria that usually only affects the elderly, but somehow he got it,” his mother Debbie Ward elaborated.

“I ended up spending a week in the hospital to clear up the infection,” Shawn said. After getting discharged from the hospital, he was then put on the transplant waiting list for almost eight months. When asked to describe his vision during the intermittent time period, he said it was “like looking through a foggy window.” Fortunately, he and his family got the call that his transplant was available on March 2, 1988. 

“I’ll never forget that day,” Debbie said. It’s a day that holds special significance for her and her family. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the donor and the donor’s family. Because of their generosity, my son can see. I thank them every single day.”

Recovery went smoothly, and after almost 30 years he only had one instance where his body “rejected” the new tissue. Three or four years after his surgery, his eye began to hurt. He and his family knew something was wrong, so they rushed him to the doctor to save the eye. After getting the right medication and eye drops, everything went back to normal. “All I have to do now to maintain the transplant is monitor my eye.” Shawn said. Any sort of pain is a red flag that something could be going wrong.

Lee and his family now like to raise awareness about becoming an organ donor. “People need to realize how important being an organ donor is,” Debbie said. By becoming an organ donor, you are giving others a chance at life.