Giving Sight a Second Chance: Cornea Transplants

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - The cornea is the eye's outermost layer. It is a clear dome shaped surface that covers the front of the eye, and is the most commonly transplanted organ in the human body.

Ethan Nelson works as a cornea recovery technician in the Interior that recovers corneas.

“So I am the only one In Fairbanks that works in the transplant business. Whenever they have other types of transplant that they need to do or recoveries they send in teams, but the corneas are the most transplantable part of the human body,” he said.

Nelson stated there is usually about an 18 hour window to recover the cornea and ship the recovery to Seattle where a company called sight life transplants them into people who need cornea replacements.

"It tends to be about a week process I would say because they have to evaluate the cornea and make sure that the cornea is acceptable, they have to look at any contraindications that might pose a problem, but whatever the case the cornea is used no matter what, they will use the cornea for educational purposes, so they send them to medical schools or other facilities that can utilize the corneas. " said Nelson

Alaska has the highest percentage of donors in the nation, with 91 percent of residents being donors.

"It is very special that people are willing to be that selfless that they would be able to give that final gift so that somebody else might live or be able to see again. It’s their vison if people didn’t get corneas they wouldn’t be able to see for the rest of their life and so there are so many different medical problems and pathological problems that cause people not to have their sight so we are literally giving people their sight again,” he said.

Rosalyn Coward says she knows the organ donation process all too well. Her Husband Adam Died of organ failure in November of 2017.

“We went through the whole spectrum because at first when I brought him to the hospital we were told that he would probably need a transplant. So I went through that motion like, I hope someone matches, how long will it be? Just like the desperation and sadness, and then he had succumbed to his illness quicker than we thought. That was really hard for me,” said Coward.

Coward says the next day she received a phone call saying Adam had donated his corneas.

“I wasn’t surprised because he was always a giver. He would give his last dollar and do anything for his friends. And I was honored, it actually gave me a good feeling. Out of the dark side of it actually gave me a little bit of hope and happiness,” said Coward.

Months later Rosalyn received a letter.

“I also had received a letters from the people that he actually changed their lives, and that was amazing. I received a letter from a man who said writing this letter was easy now because he could see a lot better, and he thanked Adam for everything that he did and how he changed his life and how he changed his family’s life, and for his kids,” she said

She called it the tip of the iceberg.

“I just loved getting those letters, when I find myself in a dark place I will read some of them it will give me like a little happiness. It makes me feel like honored. Honored to be his wife, no matter how long, or how short. And I just brag about him all the time. And like I said he was always like that before but even now I look and even after he was still giving and thinking of others,” said Coward.

A life changed by a donation. A story that Jared Dye can relate too.
Dye suffered from a disease called keratoconus. As he got older his eyesight got worse.

“When I was growing up I ended up with a disease. They are still not sure what causes keratoconus, but the disease that I had was keratoconus,”he said.

Dye said keratoconus it is a deformation of the cornea in the developmental stage.

“So when you are a young child what they are thinking is that it came from rubbing your eyes. The center of your eyeball is supposed to be the high point and in my eyeball it was the lowest the bottom of the cornea instead of the center,” said Dye.

Dye said his eyesight got worse. His right eye became more problematic. He said the transplant procedure became more and more relevant and there were more and more people doing it.

"Before the transplant I started thinking about of a few things like okay this thing kept me out of the military, this disease has now taken my driver’s license, my way to make an income. What else is this going to take from me? Am I going to end up not being able to read or watch the television or you know go blind completely? I just didn't know what was coming," said Dye.

After the transplant Jared says he went back to doing the things he loved and all the things that he stopped doing.

“So mow that I have received the donor cornea I was able to go back to hunting and enjoying and driving CDL.” Said Dye.

Nelson says one donor has the potential of helping dozens of others. When you sign up to be an organ donor, once you pass, life Alaska will reach out to family and they will see if it is something they are interested in.

He said there are a lot of questions involved, and some of it can be hard to answer because it is a very sensitive subject.

He wanted to let people know they understand that and if it is just a supporting ear, they can be that too. He encourages those to ask questions.

For more information on Life Alaska Donor Services you can visit https://www.lifealaska.org/