In 2003, I was 15 years old and diagnosed with Keratoconous* in both my eyes. I had suffered with this condition and vision challenges since High School and in the last couple of years unfortunately, the condition has advanced significantly resulting in very poor vision in both of my eyes. As you can imagine this was very difficult for a teenager to experience.
It was early December of 2016, when we learnt that my condition was at an advanced stage where my vision couldn’t be corrected any longer. My hard rigid contact lenses and the new technology Scleral lenses did not suit my eyes either. The only way to improve my vision by eliminating the Keratoconous was to undergo a corneal transplant surgery called Deep Anterior Lamellar Keratoplasty (DALK). DALK is a partial-thickness corneal transplant which involves only the donor stroma, leaving the recipient’s own Descemet membrane and endothelium. Penetrating Keratoplasty (PK – full thickness) involves the full cornea. The donor cornea is micro stitched in place into the recipient’s eye until it is healed and the stitches are removed
*Keratoconus is a slow, progressive corneal dystrophy in which the normally round, dome-shaped cornea thins and bulges into a cone-like shape; which bends light into the eye and therefore distorts the vision. This condition can be managed by an ophthalmologist using contact lenses, which will most likely be hard rigid lenses or scleral lenses. Over time the condition can worsen, where even with the lenses there is very little vision, needing corrective surgery involving a partial/full-thickness corneal transplant.
I was married for 6 months when I found out that my life will change forever –I was informed that I urgently required the surgery (bilateral corneal transplants). Amazed at the advances of medical technology in the last decade, I knew my life was drastically going to change for the better.
At the time I was a flight paramedic, which is a physical and emotionally taxing job that requires long hours and often in difficult, light-restrictive situations. I am also a very active person who runs half marathons, enjoys weekend hikes and trail runs, swimming, gym and generally being outdoors all the time.
Due to the long recovery time of the surgery and the circumstances or intricacies around being a Flight Paramedic, I was now forced to become the “patient” and put my dream career on hold, in order for optimal healing to take place.
I desperately needed this surgery in both my eyes however as per standard medical practice, these surgeries are performed a year apart to allow for full recovery on the first operated eye. My surgeon deemed my right eye the most critical and the two-hour procedure was scheduled for the end of April 2017.
The donor cornea was flown in from the USA due to extreme shortages in South Africa. I was fortunate enough to be on a medical aid which covered a portion of the surgery. It is also possible to have this surgery through the state if there is no medical aid however the wait for a corneal transplant can be a lengthy one due to the long waiting list in South Africa and the shortage of donors.
On the 26th of April 2017, DALK surgery was performed to my right eye. After a successful 120 minute surgery and micro-stiches in place, I was sent home with a long road to recovery. For an active person this was probably the hardest part; I was instructed that I could not take part in any exercising, weight-lifting (not even a full kettle), swimming, driving especially at night or even touching the eye for a minimum of 3 months. I had to (and still do) sleep with an eye patch over my eye to prevent accidental rubbing or scratching during the night whilst sleeping, as the cornea is very fragile.
Ten months post-surgery, during one of many follow-up appointments with my surgeon I had half of the 16 stitches removed. The eight stitches were removed in the surgeon’s room using anaesthetic eye drops, with the remaining stitches due for removal within the next few months. When the remaining stitches are eventually removed, my eye will slowly start to form its natural dome-shape which will therefore improve my vision significantly. For now my vision through my right eye remains blurry.
The healing process is lengthly, around 12-14 months. In South Africa, you can wait anything from up to 1.5 years for a cornea transplant. There are more than 5000 patients nationally awaiting corneal graft surgery and sadly, less than 4% of our population are consenting donors. There are a lot of contra-indications to corneal donation that have to be considered so this also contributes to the reduction in donors. If your cornea perforates you will be considered priority, however, if donor tissue is not available, the risk of losing that eye due to infection is great.
This can be a tough journey as we are talking about your vision – something you need daily to complete simple tasks, which can often be taken for granted.
Today I am heading towards one year after my right corneal transplant. My vision is clearing up slowly and only once this eye is 100%, will I undergo surgery on my left eye. Bilateral corneal grafts are the only curable treatment to my condition.
I am incredibly grateful that my condition has a treatment and that my vision will be improved through these procedures.
Have you considered Organ and tissue donation?
Organ and tissue donation is a personal decision. If you decide to become an organ and tissue donor, talk to your family about your decision. If your family are aware it will make the decision process so much easier for them in the event of your demise. We ask that you also register as on organ and tissue donor and of course share your decision to do so with as many people as possible.
Your decision may not only possibly save 7 lives but also help up to 50 more people with tissue, like corneas one day. You may even be responsible for helping someone see one day.
For more information about corneal transplants and tissue donation in general you can contact:
The KZN Cornea and Eye Association – www.kzneyebank.co.za – Tel All Hours: 082 781 3828
Organ Donor Foundation of South Africa – www.odf.org.za – Tel: 0800 22 66 11
Centre for Tissue Engineering Pretoria – www.tissuedonaton.co.za – Free State, Cape and KZN 0823253448 / Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo 0823798536 / North West and Vaal Triangle 082 411 7109 / Eastern Cape 061 405 2932