Fred, from Springfield, Missouri, received a corneal transplant in November of 1970 before corneal donation and transplantation were as well-established as they are now. Saving Sight (known then as the Missouri
Lions Eye Bank) and the Eye Bank Association of America were only 10 and 9 years old, respectively, and most organ procurement organizations did not yet exist. Instead, transplant surgeons sourced their corneal tissue through small, often hospital operated donor programs. Recipients frequently rejected the transplants within a few years, meaning they would usually have to go through an arduous surgery and recovery process multiple times to regain their sight.
Born with 20/400 eyesight in his left eye, Fred was legally blind in one eye (he likens it to putting Vaseline on the lenses of a pair of glasses). In fourth grade, Fred’s seeing right eye was poked with a stick, which later caused a growth to develop on his cornea, and his vision in that eye eventually progressed to blindness, too. The doctor he had been seeing referred him to a specialist in St. Louis. After Dr. Kolker, an ophthalmologist at Washington University, had exhausted all other treatments and Fred had been blind for two years of junior high, he recommended that the 14-year-old undergo a corneal transplant. Transplants only had a two-year expectancy at the time before the body would reject them, but Fred, Dr. Kolker, and his family decided that was better than the alternative.
Fred and his parents were put on call until several months later when the family of a 31-year-old in the St. Louis area who died in a car accident made the heroic choice to donate his corneas. “I was in school at a pep rally when Dr. Kolker called,” Fred remembered, “and Mom and Dad picked me up. We were in St. Louis that evening where I was admitted to McMillan Hospital. And the next morning they did the transplant bright and early.” Fred’s recovery was a six-month process, partly because of the fear of rejection and partly because he received two dozen hand-sewn stitches to replace his cornea. After the surgery, both of his eyes were bandaged to keep them immobile. “I could shower and use the restroom, but otherwise I had to stand straight up or lay on my back for two weeks,” he reported. Afterward, they took the bandage off his left eye, enabling him to see somewhat, but finally, months later, the bandage was removed from Fred’s right eye. “I remember taking the bandage off and having to wear sunglasses for a while,” Fred recalled. “I hadn’t seen the sun in a long time, so my eye was very sensitive.”
But Fred’s recovery was not complete. “Almost 2 years to the day after my transplant, my eye started getting red and watering,” he said. “So they hospitalized and isolated me. They used a drug to weaken my immune system and then built my body back up. I was in isolation for two weeks until my body accepted the cornea.” The intervention worked, though, and he hasn’t had any more problems, to this day.
The corneal transplant recipients that Saving Sight serves today have a very different experience. Thanks to generous eye donors and a strong eye banking infrastructure across the country, a surgery can be scheduled within a few weeks or months, depending on the surgeon’s schedule. And the operation is an outpatient procedure due to advances in surgical and processing techniques. The recipient must remain relatively immobile for a few days, but vision typically comes back within a couple of weeks.
Fred had to give up contact sports and playing the trumpet, the latter for fear that the pressure in his head would damage the transplant, but otherwise, he was able to make a full recovery and do the things he loves. He even got his driver’s license when he turned 16. But he still keeps a set of Braille playing cards he received during his time of blindness. “They remind me where I come from back in those days,” he said. Today, Fred is a member of several service organizations and supports donation in his community. “My wife and I have been on the donor list since 1980,” he said. “When you get your new license, you need to have that donor symbol on there.”
In the last 43 years since Fred’s transplant, Saving Sight and the transplant surgeons it partners with have made considerable advancements, the result of which is recipients regaining their sight quickly and with less pain. And more people than ever are saying yes to donation and joining the eye, organ, and tissue donor registry. To join the millions of Americans like Fred who have declared their choice to be donors, visit the Donate Life America website or a local Department of Motor Vehicles office.