Tom suffers from Fuchs’ corneal dystrophy, a hereditary disease that causes fluid buildup as the cornea’s endothelial cells deteriorate, but he didn’t know that at first. “I thought I was having trouble with allergies and dry eyes – that I was getting older,” Tom said. As a veteran of the U.S. Air Force (service from Jan. 1972 to April 1984), Tom receives much of his health care from his local Veteran’s Administration hospital, and in 2011, he visited it for a routine diabetes check-up.
The nurse there asked him how he could see out of his right eye at all. When he then visited the hospital’s eye clinic, he was fortunate enough to be seen by an intern who had studied with Dr. Sutphin at University of Kansas Hospital. Because of her training, she had seen cases of Fuchs’ before and was able to refer Tom to Dr. Sutphin, who officially diagnosed Tom with Fuchs’ corneal dystrophy and prescribed a salve and eye drops to treat the blistering and pressure.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Normally, the cells that line the back surface (endothelium) of the cornea prevent excess fluid from accumulating. This helps the cornea maintain its transparency. But with Fuchs’ dystrophy, those endothelial cells slowly deteriorate, lose function, and die. As a result, fluid builds up in the cornea. This may cause swelling, cloudy vision, pain, and loss of corneal transparency.” The irritation and watering eyes Tom experienced were not unlike problems people have with seasonal allergies, only it was more severe. But thankfully he was able to receive a diagnosis early on because in the final stages of the disease, the cornea completely deteriorates and Tom would have gone blind. As the primary earner for his family, Tom’s loss of sight would have had implications not only for himself but also for the family he supports, including his wife, his son, and his son’s family.
On Groundhog Day in 2012, Tom received a cornea transplant in his right eye at University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, KS. Tom reported being “in a blur” for the first several days after his surgery, but he was able to drive again the day after his one-week follow-up appointment with Dr. Sutphin. “I received a multitude of eye drops, but that has since decreased,” Tom said. “Now I take one drop every day for the rest of my life. It’s a small price to pay compared to the alternative.” Tom’s sight improved to 20/100 in the right eye (20/20 with correction), and after a subsequent cataract surgery, he can now see 20/25 in that eye – without corrective lenses.
“So far, I couldn’t be happier,” Tom said. “I’m grateful to those who made the cornea donation, and I’m thankful to the Almighty that we’re able to do [transplant surgeries] these days.” Tom will require a second cornea transplant for his left eye later this year to completely repair the damage caused by Fuchs’ dystrophy, and he will need further treatments for cataracts as well. But in the end, Tom will be able to complete his work with the federal government to support himself and his family in the remaining years until his retirement.
Tom has been registered to be a donor his entire adult life. You can register to be an eye, organ, and tissue donor through your state’s registry by visiting http://donatelife.net or your local Department of Motor Vehicles office.