A Transplant in Plain Sight
Have you ever had a favorite pair of sunglasses you kept wearing even when they got scratched up? You still find yourself reaching for those glasses, ignoring those scratches because you think you look so good in them. Sometimes, when the sun is shining brightly, the scratches make it difficult for you to see. You feel uneasy, shaky, or unconfident in your ability to make out what is front you. When this happens, you lose your perspective—you lose your sense of self. Well, I have an eye condition that makes me feel like I am wearing sunglasses that get a new scratch every day. And these scratches will eventually keep you from seeing anything at all.
I have a progressive, no inflammatory eye condition called keratoconus. Instead of my corneas being round and dome shaped, they are like cones. This causes the retinas to stretch and scar, which mirrors the condition of walking around with scratches on your sunglasses. Keratoconus can cause significant vision impairment and eventually leads to legal blindness. To save my vision, I became one of the 15% of those with keratoconus to require a radical course of action: a corneal transplant.
My vision has never been the best, and I have always suffered with astigmatism. You could say I grew up sleeping in my glasses. I was an avid reader and artist—always reading, painting or drawing, or as my mom says, “making.” However, my life changed forever when I went to college. My vision had gotten so bad that the optometrist recommended contact lenses just so I could see. The costs of contact lenses are much cheaper now, but over 30 years ago, it was a significant investment for a military family and I was honored and scared to be the recipient of such a gift. But my parents were so supportive and said they would do whatever was needed. When I finally got the contacts in and adjusted, I cried with joy because I could finally see the lines on the leaves and flowers that I loved to draw. I went to college with new hope, a new set of eyes and a new vision.
Keratoconus is a progressive disease. As the years went on, my vision got worse, and my contact prescription got stronger. One year, after a disheartening visit, an optometrist told me, “You probably should stop driving at night; there is really nothing else we can do for you.” That’s when I knew I had a serious problem. With two small children, my dreams of driving them to and from baseball, soccer and dance lessons came to a screeching halt. And I had to face the reality I needed to do something different. So off I went to the ophthalmologist to see what could be done. The treatment path for those with my condition is often full of expensive and time-consuming treatments. From custom soft contact lenses to intacs (prescription inserts) and corneal cross-linking, it became overwhelming. Lasik refractive surgery was never a solution because of the condition of my actual corneas. So the ophthalmologist recommended treatment plan that included a corneal transplants and then custom contact lenses.
Corneal transplants are the oldest form of organ donation; the first procedure dates back to 1905. Today, it is the most common procedure of its kind, with over 48,000 people expected to have corneal transplants this year in the US alone, and with a 95% success rate. The corneas used in transplants come from deceased donors. And unlike other organs such as kidneys, livers and hearts, people who need a new cornea don’t have to wait a long time to get a transplant: corneal transplants don’t require a match to a blood type since there are no blood vessels in a human cornea.
I had my first corneal transplant in 2004, and my recovery process took almost three years. During that time, I wore a patch and even eyeglasses with one lens. Since the grafts from transplants are sensitive, I have had use expensive eye drops quite often to fight off infection. And after all that, I still wear custom, expensive scleral lenses, which are twice the size of normal contact lenses. They are quite sensitive to every spec of dust and limiting my eye makeup choices. But I don’t mind, I just find myself wearing a lot of sunglasses because I need to protect the precious gift I received. My condition is not curable, so I will always be challenged with my vision, visiting the ophthalmologist every six months, so they can check my transplants and the progress of my condition.
Through it all, I can say I have been blessed. Each new day, I have been blessed with the gift of sight—given to me because of another family’s tragedy and loss. Each day I see the sunshine, I know it’s a reason to rejoice. Each new day is a reason to wear a great pair of sunglasses that mean more to me than a fashion statement
So, when you see me in my sunglasses, understand they are more than an accessory. Sunglasses are better than diamonds or pearls; they are my symbol of gratefulness because I can still see through them even when they get a little scratched.
Sharon is a daughter, sister, proud mother & well-loved wife. She calls herself a #socialmedia storyteller and definitely not a guru. She is a proud graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Follower her on twitter at @sharonlroy and @chefandbride.