Most of us never think much about organ, tissue, and eye donation. But for me, it’s a topic that hits close to home. My sister and I were born with the genetic disease, keratoconus. Our corneas are shaped like footballs instead of the normal disk shape. It is impossible to put a contact lens on a football-shaped eye and even more difficult to see as the disease progresses with age. By puberty, the disease begins to be symptomatic. Some people manage to live a life of relatively normal vision while others, including my sister and me, experience serious losses of vision.
For me, when I sat down for an eye exam, I couldn’t see the first line of the eye chart. The large, bold ‘E’ that’s almost like a title on the poster was not visible. I couldn’t even see the poster hanging on the wall. When my older sister was 17, she received her first corneal transplant and nine years later, I received mine. If it weren’t for organ donors and corneal transplants, we wouldn’t be able to see.
After I received my second transplant, I got an infection in one eye which led to more vision problems and scar tissue. As we were working on removing the scar tissue and making sure my eye was healthy again, my doctors said I would once again qualify for a transplant.
Until you’ve been on a transplant wait list or prepping with tests and assessments to qualify for the eye bank, it’s really hard to describe. Waiting doesn’t come easy to me. Waiting to be approved for a new cornea is, on a good day, nerve-racking. There are feelings of being excited to qualify for the transplant and to someday have the ability to see, yet at the same time, that knowing feeling that my vision is dependent on someone dying who was willing to be an organ donor. So there’s lot of juggling: the anticipation of receiving the cornea, the angst of whether or not it will work, and wondering, who’s eye will I receive? where did they live? how did they die? And then, last year just as our lives were beginning to be disrupted with all things COVID, I learned that a cornea had become available. Three days before my home state of Michigan shut down, I was gifted with a new cornea and an opportunity to see out of my right eye.
As we reflect on all that our health care professionals do for us, I want to acknowledge that there are other heroes out there also. Because five selfless people and their families agreed to be organ donors, my sister and I are living today with their corneas – they’ve given us the ability to see – through their eyes.
February 14 is National Donor’s Day. I am grateful for my loved ones on this heart-filled day and that includes five people who forever changed the lives of my sister and me.
Read more about National Donor’s Day and for information on becoming an organ donor click here.