Debi's vision is vital in her vocation as an attorney and in participating in the activities that bring her joy. She was gradually losing her ability to see, and without a corneal transplant, she feared she would become blind. Thanks to a generous donor, her vision is fully restored. She says in a letter to her donor family, "There are no words that can express my gratitude to you," she said in a letter to her donor family. "I am expecting my first grandchild … and I look forward to being able to see my grandchild as she/he grows up." Thank you to everyone that helps SightLife unlock life's possibilities for those with corneal disease.
Fred Lundahl knew something was terribly wrong when he failed the eye exam he needed to remain a flight instructor. A diagnosis of Fuchs' dystrophy confirmed it. Without two corneal transplants, he would go blind.
Just months after his corneal transplants, Fred was back in his airplane flying again.
As a former Foreign Service Officer, Fred knows firsthand the struggles of the people living in developing countries. When he learned the same organization that provided his own precious transplants is on a mission to eradicate corneal blindness worldwide, he knew he needed to do more.
Fred made a gift to SightLife's global programs, knowing his contribution would be used to help other blind people like him regain their sight. "Having lived overseas for many years of my adult life, I have settled on both international and local giving for my charities of choice. SightLife, being here in Seattle, fits both criteria."
Cassidy was barely five when she received her cornea, but it had already been more than a year since she began to complain that everything looked "scribbly." With the scribbly vision came problems with depth perception and maintaining balance.
An ulcer was boring a hole into Cassidy's eye and taking her sight. As the ulcer festered, the hole grew and scarred over. Without intervention, Cassidy's eye would go completely blind.
On a February morning in Spokane, Cassidy received the gift that put her young life back on keel. Immediately upon waking up from cornea transplant surgery, she told her parents that everything wasn't scribbly any more. In the months that followed, her vision continued to improve. "I can see so much better!" she told her parents over and over, but they never failed to be thrilled at the words.
"We will never know the donor or the donor family, but they have given us the most beautiful gift," says Cassidy's mother, Dawn. "They have given us the ability to look forward to the future."
Years ago I left my job as a college professor in California to concentrate on something I always wanted to pursue – writing. I moved to the state of Washington, and all went well until a few years ago. I gradually started to lose my eyesight. Writing posed demands on my vision, and editing my own material became a major struggle. In fact, my entire dream began to deteriorate. Soon, I was writing less and becoming increasingly frustrated.
I've spent a lifetime, since my teenage years, looking through telescopes. This avocation also nearly disappeared when my vision deteriorated.
Throughout the years I often hosted "star parties" for college students. It's always fun to introduce young people to the wonders of the night sky. Before focusing the telescope, I would review the overhead view with these students, pointing out the major constellations. What frustration when these young eyes could recognize so much more than I could see. Then, through the telescope's eyepiece, they would express their amazement at objects like the Ring Nebula. "It looks just like a smoke ring!" they'd say. But to me, the Ring Nebula was just a fuzzy blob.
One of my decision points prior to surgery involved my inability to read a newspaper, I struggled so much that I tended to read only the headlines. Even with a bright light, I couldn't make it through a full paragraph with any coherence.
Now, everything has changed! Within only a few days after my cornea transplant, my vision improved so much that it was better than before the surgery. Within two weeks, everything started to take on an almost-3D appearance, undoubtedly because my vision had been so bad for so long that I didn't remember the attributes of good vision. Words on the pages of a book became vivid and distinct. I could see the text on a computer screen crisply, making detailed business and personal tasks possible again. And newspapers? – No problem!
On my first night at my telescope's eyepiece after my eye surgery, I was shocked! I too could see that distinct smoke ring. The nebula seemed to pop out at me in distinct three dimensions. Imagine my first look through my small telescope after my eye surgery – objects I waited years to see distinctly were suddenly bright and prominent. What a joy to rediscover the night sky!
This experience has provided me with a great example of how a physical improvement can make major changes in a person's overall mental health and quality of life, which reminds me of the great flexibility of our bodies. For me, without donors, all of this would have been impossible. To offer the value of eyesight to another is one of the greatest gifts possible.
Wayne J. Lutz
Dusti deals with her challenges head on and never gives up. After losing her ability to walk in a motorcycle accident she maintained her independence and carried on with the activities that made her fulfilled. Then, Dusti was diagnosed with Fuch's Dystrophy and contracted a herpes virus in her cornea. Dusti said "Life had knocked me down again and I was getting tired of it." Now with the generous gift of a cornea donor she can see once more. "If I could talk to my donor's family,," she said, "I would try to express the miracle they and their loved one gave me."
See more photos of Dusti on our Facebook page.
You can also check out her photo essay there!
Scott was only 14 years old when he received the first of two corneal transplants. His increasingly poor vision made it almost impossible to read his school books, see the board in class and do his homework without his sister's assistance. Thanks to the generous gift of donation all of this has changed and Scott can look forward to the possibility of driver's education. Wendy, Scott's mother, described their experience "It was a blessing…especially the donor families…it was pretty incredible all the way around."
Check out his photo essay on our Facebook page!
Janice may be a retired teacher, but she's hardly sedentary. She hikes, bikes, and travels all over the world, even hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru and Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal. All this keeps her in shape for playing with her four grandchildren.
Janice has had impaired vision all her life, and in recent years it continued to get worse. A little over a year ago, she had her cornea transplant, and with the care of her excellent physician, she is now able to see the beautiful smiles of her grandchildren. Janice said about her relationship with them, "They appreciate me, as I do them, and we love each other very much."
Janice said in her letter to her donor family, "I have never taken my sight for granted, nor will I ever." She continued, "Thank you so much for this wonderful and compassionate gift. I am sorry that you have suffered a terrible loss. Please know that your thoughtfulness is greatly appreciated."
"The best option for you and your baby is to put her in an institution."
That's what a doctor told Julie Bertelsen's parents 39 years ago when she was born with Downs Syndrome. Allen and Jan Bertelsen ignored that doctor.
Since then all Julie has done to validate her parents' faith in her future is:
In fact, it seemed like the whole city was at the airport to greet Julie when she returned home from the 2007 games in China. Every member of the Montana State women's basketball team was in the crowd, as well as athletes from many of the other university teams, customers of the businesses where Julie works, employers, family, and just plain fans.
In 1999 when Julie was 29 years old, the athletic career that has brought her so much joy faced a premature end from impending blindness in her right eye. Cornea tissue from SightLife enabled the sight-restoring transplant that saved her vision and provided continued opportunity to excel in sports.
Last year, SightLife weighed in again for Julie when she faced the most devastating loss of her life. Allen Betelsen, Julie's father, coach, and lifelong hero died at the age of 69. After seeing what cornea donation had made possible for Julie, there was never a doubt that he would be a donor. Allen's gifts took wing to Japan, where they gave restored sight to a 90-year-old woman and a 64-year-old man.
Julie found both comfort and pride in her father's gift. The man who served as her role model and best friend in life gave her one last lesson in the indistinguishable flame of human kindness. Julie's personal experience as a cornea recipient who got to keep doing what she loved in life through the gift of a stranger intensified her pride in her father's gifts.
It seems fitting. The wings that Julie received from a stranger's gift took her to China and a gold medal in the World Games. Now two people in faraway Japan see the world through the eyes of her father and hero. For this woman who has used parental love and God-given spunk to achieve beyond expectations, the lesson was learned long ago: human kindness is a gift that always comes around.
I have been extremely near-sighted all my life. I remember thinking trees were just brown sticks with big green blobs at the top. All through school I had to sit in the front row to be able to see the blackboard. My poor vision helped develop my memory, so in spite of not seeing well, I excelled in school and was a straight A student. In high school I started wearing contact lenses that helped slow down the progression of my changing vision. Eventually, I needed the prescription changed every 9 months, but even then my eye doctors could not correct my vision. I could barely pass my driver's license. I was working in ICU as a nurse and could not read the small print on medication vials. I was at a point where I needed to do something or lose my job.
After multiple different types of surgeries to correct my vision, my eyesight was only made worse, not better. This led to my first cornea transplant.
My first cornea transplant was 14-15 years ago. It enabled me to keep my job and keep working. After 11 years I needed two additional transplants, and thankfully, these surgeries were an option.
Throughout all my ordeals I do more than many normal-sighted people. I snow ski, water ski, scuba dive, ride horses, and continue to work a full-time job and a part-time job. I also now have 2 great-nieces that I adore, and seeing them grow and change is probably the most special thing to me!
I have been able to continue working as a nurse. In that capacity I hope I impact someone every day. I continue to be a part of my great-nieces' lives as they grow, and I am now focusing on retirement and am learning to train horses.
Miguel's diagnosis of corneal disease was a long time coming.
Miguel, who was born and raised in Mexico, started suffering from poor vision at an early age. As his eyesight worsened he was prescribed increasingly thicker glasses in order to see. When a doctor finally diagnosed Miguel with keratoconus, he also told him that eventually the disease would cost him his sight. Miguel began preparing himself for a future of blindness. Already, his vision was blurred. It was only a matter of time before it faded altogether.
Fate intervened when Miguel's father immigrated to the United States to find work. At the age of 14, Miguel joined him so he could assist his father as an interpreter. He enrolled in high school but could barely see the blackboard, even from the front row. When the opportunity for a free eye exam came his way, Miguel jumped at it. It was during that exam that he learned he didn't need glasses. He needed a cornea transplant.
The idea that blindness was not inevitable gave Miguel hope for the first time. He stopped skipping classes at school. The Northwest Lions Foundation paid for the cost of a transplant for his badly damaged left eye and by late spring of his junior year, Miguel stood confidently before his classmates and shared his experience. After additional surgery on his right eye a year later, Miguel could see clearly again. Miguel graduated from high school and not only got a job, but returned to school later to study music.
Miguel didn't initially think much about his cornea donor, but when he learned it came from a University of Washington undergraduate who was quite close to him in age, the donation suddenly became very meaningful to him. "That's when I decided I wanted to write his family and thank them," he says. "I carry his story with me everywhere."
One of the best parts of Miguel's day, he says, is when he wakes up in the morning. It is at that moment, when he first opens his eyes, that he remembers he can see again.
At first, Micki Gould just thought she needed reading glasses. But as her vision got progressively worse, the 49-year-old operating room veteran knew she was in real trouble.
In the operating room, a loss of depth perception made it impossible for her to locate and secure the fine sutures used in open heart surgeries. After 28 years as a nurse with "go to" skills, she would soon be useless in the operating room. She could continue in her other capacity as a clinical nurse educator at St. Joseph's Hospital in Bellingham, but for how long?
Even worse, fear became her frequent companion as self-sufficiency slipped away in what seemed like a thousand ways. Perhaps the last straw came when she panicked upon being separated from her husband during a trip to the shopping mall. She knew she was at the mall, but where in the mall? And how would she find her husband without being able to recognize his face from any sort of distance? Micki felt helpless and alone.
A visit to eye surgeon Dr. Thomas Gillette in Seattle revealed the problem. Complications from radial keratoplasty performed on her eyes 15 years prior were taking her vision. On November 22 of last year, Micki underwent the cornea transplant on her right eye that put her life back in order.
After years of assisting surgeons with tissue and organ recoveries that renewed hope and normal life for others, Micki Gould has found herself on the recipient side. And it feels great!
"I have to admit to some fear going into the surgery," says Micki, "but the recovery and progress has been incredibly positive!"
By the time you read this story, she will have returned to Dr. Gillette for an assessment on whether her left eye also needs transplant surgery. Odds are high that the answer will be "yes," because she has experienced a definite loss of vision in that eye as well.
This time she's looking forward to the surgery. As a second timer, her attitude has evolved from fear to anticipation. "The sooner it's done, the sooner my sight returns," says Micki.
There's one thing, however, that she will never take for granted. As one who has personally experienced the real-life drama of organ/tissue donation from both sides now — recovery and recipient — Micki Gould goes forward with a profound respect for the kindness of donors and for organizations like SightLife, who serve as caretakers of their gift.
Sarah, a cornea donor, had always been a very giving person. So it is very fitting that even after her death, she is still giving today.
Sarah and her sister, Elishia, had signed up to be organ donors when they were teenagers. The message that Sarah's corneas would be donated came on the day of her memorial service. It was a ray of hope on a dark day.
A few months later, Jeanne happened to meet one of SightLife's recovery technicians in a parking lot. Recognizing the SightLife logo on his vehicle, she approached him. "You work at SightLife," she said, tearing up. "My daughter was a..." Jeanne paused, unable to continue. "A donor," he finished gently for her, and gave her a hug. They talked. He wrote down her number on a napkin. The next day she was contacted by SightLife. That was the beginning of a wonderful gift for Jeanne.
"I didn't know you can get joy from grief, but you can," she said. And that joy really started to blossom when Jeanne met Scott, a cornea recipient, and his mother, Wendy, at a SightLife Donation Celebration Picnic.
"It just opened up a new reality for me. Something I never thought I'd be part of, but it's a beautiful thing," Jeanne said.
Wendy knew the celebration would be interesting, but she didn't realize how much it was going to touch her to meet a donor family.
"It made it more personal for me," Wendy said. She is thankful that this experience has helped teach her son compassion and is glad he can share his story with other teens.
An event like this is life altering for a community of people, from members of the donor family to friends and family of the recipient. Jeanne said she could feel the joy from Scott's family and she embraced it.
"It's all emotion," said Jeanne." And it is beautiful emotion. That is the best gift ever. The best gift I could have received."
Judy Jones might never have seen her own son Legrand's face if not for two cornea transplants.
Judy was 4½ months pregnant and losing the race against a rapidly-spreading form of Keratoconus when she received her second transplant. "For me, Legrand's birth was a double miracle," says Judy. "Holding him would have been enough, but I am more grateful than I will ever be able to express to the donors who made it possible for me to see every perfect, tiny little feature."
Legrand is not the only child whom Judy appreciates watching grow and change. There are literally hundreds of faces to be thankful for at the south branch of the Puget Sound Boys and Girls Club she directs. "I would still be able to do this job blind," she says, "but oh, those smiles! I owe the privilege of seeing them to two people I'll never meet but whose kindness I will never forget."
Michael Kaytor, a Vietnam War veteran, was living with constant pain in his eye due to a problem with an eye surgery. His vision was greatly impaired and that, coupled with the discomfort, was making Michael suffer on a daily basis.
Now, thanks to his corneal transplant, he has found relief and can see clearly. He sees the gift of sight as a "true blessing" and says, "I smile every day and look forward to all of my blessings." In a letter to his donor family, he continued, "I am over another hurdle in life and healing every day, and words can't express my gratitude for the gift of my sight and being out of pain. Thank you so very much. May you be comforted in your time of loss knowing that you have given a wonderful gift and enriched my life."
I was first diagnosed with keratoconus in 1998. I tried to wear contacts to treat this disease, but that approach proved unsuccessful. Twice the contacts popped out of my eyes, once when I was taking a math exam and the other time when I was driving. I found the contacts to be extremely painful, and it sometimes took me over an hour to put them in my eyes. While wearing the contacts, my eyes were extremely sensitive to light, and I experienced headaches and eye pain. Without the contacts, I was legally blind. Because of my difficulty with the contacts, and the fact that I was legally blind without them, my doctor recommended cornea transplants. I received my left cornea in 1999 and my right cornea in 2001.
I feel so blessed and honored to have received my bilateral cornea transplants; they were truly a gift. Dr. Thomas Gillette, of Eye Associates Northwest in Seattle, performed the surgery. The Eye Associates Northwest staff was wonderful. Now, the vision in my right eye is 20/20 without correction, and my left eye is 20/20 with correction.
The transplants allowed me to complete the nursing program at Seattle University. After I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, I became a hospice nurse. Now, as a registered nurse, I work as a primary care team lead. In my present position, I have mentored many other nurses. I am halfway through a master's degree in nursing, and should have it completed soon.
Without the transplants, I do not think I would have completed my education and fulfilled my lifelong dream of being a registered nurse. The transplants gave me an opportunity to see things more clearly, literally and spiritually. This was, for me, a miracle; and, because I was given so much, I feel the need to give something back. By sharing my story, I hope that I can inspire others to seek or provide help in facilitating sight-restoring — and life-changing — transplants.
Pelavi Mandalia, RN BSN
January 30, 2010
On January 1, 2010, SightLife cornea recipient Cristina Margolis rode down Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard on the Rose Bowl Parade float that celebrates organ and tissue donation. Cristina received her transplant in time to see the face of her newborn daughter.
In May of 2007, Cristina's right eye was diagnosed with a very rare and serious infection called Acanthamoeba Keratitis. She underwent intense, painful treatment for three months straight, and although the infection was gone, she was left legally blind. It was very difficult for her to adjust from being a normal 25-year-old to a disabled woman with low self esteem because she felt ashamed, embarrassed, and ugly about her disfigured, lifeless eye.
In December of 2008 though, Cristina received the chance to see again by having a very successful cornea transplant. She is now able to see 20/30 — better than she had been able to see before! Cristina got married a few months after her transplant. A few months more and she and her husband learned that they were going to have a baby. Deeply moved, Cristina wrote these words in a letter to the family of her cornea donor:
"Knowing that I will be able to see my baby's beautiful face when she is born, watch her take her first steps, and witness all of the other milestones mothers are blessed to see brings tears to my eyes. I can't wait until the day when I get to tell my daughter about the best Christmas gift her mother ever received, and how her mother holds and will always hold a special place in her heart for her donor and her donor's family. From the bottom of my heart, thank you."
Martin's first cornea transplant was in August of 1993 and his second in May of 2009. "I started to educate myself on ways to improve my life, body, mind and spirit. The gift of new sight from someone I never met and didn't know gave me such a deep sense of gratitude. This gratitude led me to return that kind of love to others — strangers and those who I never realized were in need."
Martin volunteers at a children's hospice and answers phones at a suicide crisis hot line. "This entire experience has benefitted my community, my family, friends, and my job. All have received as a result of my regaining sight."
Thank you to all who give, whether it is a donor, donor families, medical staff or organizations like SightLife and those who run it!
Katelyn's family wasn't aware that she had noticed. Nobody knows how it got there, but, besides robbing Katelyn's vision, the scar on her left eye had opaqued over much of the brown center with a milky white film. But Katelyn HAD noticed. And when a post-surgery look in the mirror told her that both eyes are now that same, the three-year-old from Idaho was one elated little girl.
Katelyn's family is more than a little pleased, too. "Thanks to you guys, we have a beautiful, happy little girl," says Katelyn's grandmother, Arliss Shove. The Northwest Lions Foundation for Sight & Hearing and the Lions Club from Kateyln's community split the cost of the $8,500 Patient Care Grant that paid hospital and operating room costs associated with the transplant. Dr. Tueng Shen of the University of Washington donated her time and skill to do the surgery.
As you might guess, cornea transplant surgery for someone so young as Katelyn is unusual. Of the 2,495 corneas SightLife provided for sight-restoring transplants that year, only one or two were for very young children.
Cornea transplants for young children don't come with the same 90-percent-plus guarantee of restored sight as for adults, but early indications for Katelyn are promising. She has already experienced some restored vision in the eye and enjoys the support of a close-knit family.
"Katelyn and her family deserve our very best, and we'll be following her progress closely," said SightLife Chief Operations Officer Bernie Iliakis. "It is a privilege to be in a position to help a special girl like this."
While packing a trailer, Tom Twigg had an unfortunate encounter with a high velocity bungee cord that hit him square in the eye. The surgeon attempted to save his eye in a four hour surgery, only to later discover that Tom would be blind in that eye. Any hope for regaining his vision would be through a cornea transplant.
"I'm thankful for the generosity of someone who saw fit to be a donor when their time came." Tom continues, "To be an organ donor is good karma."
The procedure, which took about 2-1/2 hours, was performed by a skilled ocular surgeon, Dr. Brian McKillop. After nearly 2 years of healing, Tom says, "The results were worth waiting for. With the assistance of prescription glasses, I can see well enough out of the injured eye to read signs, watch TV, and see the expressions on my kids' faces. Restoring the vision in Tom's injured eye has made it easier for him to continue in a career of design and photography.
"I want to thank everybody who has kept me in their thoughts during this long recovery. I especially want to thank my donor and SightLife for making this all possible."