Brad from Mason City, Illinois describes himself as a computer guy. He worked on computers, worked in a computer store, and played computer games for much of his life. About seven years ago, though, he noticed that he was having trouble seeing the computer screens. “I thought I needed new glasses so I went to my optometrist’s office, and they referred me to another doctor who diagnosed me with keratoconus,” Brad said. “I told him I had trouble with my new glasses, and the doctor said it’s because you can’t correct keratoconus very well.”
Keratoconus significantly impairs vision for about 1 in 2,000 people, but its cause remains unknown. According to the National Keratoconus Foundation, the disease “is a non-inflammatory eye condition in which the normally round dome-shaped cornea progressively thins, causing a cone-like bulge to develop.” Brad described it like this: “Imagine the cornea like a soccer ball—it’s rounded. But for somebody with progressed keratoconus, the rounded part flattens out like the end of a football, and as it progresses, the cornea gets thinner. And with it being pulled and thinning, some of the tissue scars.”
As a result, Brad suffered from severe astigmatism. To help correct his vision, he received rigid, gas-permeable contact lenses that helped shape the eye, but this correction could not keep up with the ever-changing shape of Brad’s corneas. Brad said that eventually he couldn’t tolerate the contacts anymore. “When the cornea distorts, it gets harder and harder to get a comfortable fit,” he recalled. “At my worst point, I could only wear contacts for an hour a day. Some days were better, but then it would hurt so much I couldn’t wear them for days after.”
After losing his job in a layoff and reaching a point where the contacts were no longer a viable solution to his vision problems, Brad moved from Springfield, IL back to his parents’ house and took steps to receive corneal transplant surgery. Uninsured after the layoff and no longer able to work or drive due to his vision, Brad applied for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration, which included the Medicare coverage he would need to receive a transplant. Finally in 2011, after six months of waiting, Brad received a full-thickness corneal transplant on his left eye from Dr. Yang at St. John’s Hospital. “The staff was amazing,” Brad said. “The surgery, considering how complicated it is, goes fairly quickly. It went really well. Within 6 months, I started showing really great improvements. Toward a year, they were able to come up with a lens correction to 20/25 in that eye.” In December 2012, Brad received a transplant in his right eye. The recovery has not been as successful as with the left eye, but he still has stitches to be removed and has appointments with Dr. Yang and his optometrist to see what else can be done to improve his vision.
Meanwhile, Brad keeps an optimistic outlook. He’s able to drive again, and he reads avidly, which he’d previously given up because it hurt too much. He even repaired the hardware on his smartphone recently, fixing a broken power switch. “It would have been impossible to do that before,” he said. “It attests to how far I’ve come.” And perhaps most importantly, Brad has used this time to improve his health in other ways. “In the last three to four years, as I was losing my sight, I started working on my health and lost 180 pounds,” he said. “I’m healthier than I have been in 15 years. I go to the gym five days a week, and my cousin trains me. I’ve taken the opportunity to improve myself all around.” With his vision and health improved, Brad is now looking for work again. “I want to get back into working in computers, something IT-related that’s hands on,” he said.
March is National Eye Donor Month, a time to honor eye donors and their families, and Brad encourages people to learn about the donor registry and sign up. “I believe in donation and always have. My mom’s a nurse and that’s something we always discussed up front,” he said. “There’s all kinds of tissues that can be used for transplants, like eyes, skin, and bone. That was the big thing you don’t really think about, but going through this experience has taught me that – donation is not always about saving someone’s life but also about improving someone’s life.”
Join Brad and the millions of Americans who have declared their choice to be eye, organ, and tissue donors by signing up for the donor registry at the Donate Life America website or a local Department of Motor Vehicles office.