Frightened...scared...helpless. These are just a few of the emotions a freshman college student feels in their first year of school. Little did I know, these emotions would stem from something other than school my freshman year.
Let’s set the scene shall we? It was the end of the summer of 2002 and I was one of nearly five hundred “new kids on campus” at Wartburg College. I settled into my dorm room, hugged my parents and bid them farewell. I was ready to be on my own. Everything was exciting and new, meeting new people and having my own responsibilities. We had been in school about three weeks when my eye had started to bother me because I had pulled a typical “all nighter” to study for my first college exam. If I only knew that one night would change my life forever.
After that night my eye continued to worsen. Pain. Light sensitivity. Redness. My mom finally got me an appointment with my eye doctor in Cedar Rapids. That day he checked me over and said I had an infection from my contacts and sent me home with some medications. Two weeks had passed and my eye was still bothering me. So back I went to Cedar Rapids. As soon as the doctor looked at my eye he told me that whatever he had treated me for before was gone and there was something else there now. He thought it was acanthamoeba keratitis. He told my mom and I that we needed to get a second opinion because he had never actually seen this before. He had only read about it in text books. He recommended I be seen at the University of Iowa. My mom and I had no idea what this meant so we sat there and discussed when in the next two weeks we would both be able to meet in Iowa City to get this checked out. The doctor very abruptly interrupted and said this was serious and it needed to be taken care of as soon a possible. He went on to say I could possibly lose my sight. Then it hit. Fear set in from hearing the sternness in his voice.
Within two days my parents and I were down at the University of Iowa Department of Ophthalmology checking in at the front desk, not knowing that within the next five and a half months I would become quite the familiar face at that check-in desk. The doctors at the University ran many tests and took samples of my cornea which brought them to the conclusion I did indeed have acanthamoeba. Acanthamoeba is a free living organism or amoeba that is found in lakes, oceans, soil and in the air. My initial contact infection provided a portal or weakness on my cornea for this organism to start living there. The months following the diagnosis only got worse. Extreme light sensitivity, redness, tearing of the eye, pain, and vision loss were just a few of my symptoms. My eye watered all the time and was always swollen and red. The eye drops I was using to kill the organism had to be kept cold so I always had to carry a lunch pail with me and an ice pack to keep them cold. I was advised to use these drops every few hours during the day and the night. This meant setting my alarm for every two hours during the night to put the drops in. Fighting this bug for five and a half months and going to class was taking its toll on my body, mind, and spirit. Not only was my sight suffering, every last bit of my body was as well.
In January 2003 I was diagnosed as being clinically blind in my right eye. A little over a month later, on February 13th, 2003 I was blessed with a donor cornea. When you become a transplant recipient, you write a letter to the donor family thanking them for their family member’s gift. It is left up to the donor family to decide if they want to contact the recipient. On a spring day in early May 2003 my family received a phone call with a middle aged gentleman’s voice on the other end asking if he could please speak to me regarding my transplant. The gentleman was a close family friend of the donor family. He told me all about my donor. The donor was a fifty one year old woman who had been a hair dresser her whole life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and only a few short weeks later she passed away. He apologized for the donor family stating “They wanted to contact you, but they felt it was too soon after her death to talk to you themselves.” Ironically, the family friend had the same last name as mine at the time which is why the donor family felt so compelled to contact me and thank me for the letter.
Because of her selfless act of choosing to be an organ and cornea donor I am now able to tell this story today with a happy ending. Since the transplant I have been doing fine, plus or minus a few bumps in the road over the last few years. I am happy to say that I have my vision back in my right eye.
I will never be able to tell my donor thank you or how much she has changed my life, I can only live each day to make her proud. Every day I strive to have even half as much compassion and courage that she did for the gift of sight she was able to provide for me. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the decision she made in her last moments of life so someone like me could see once again.
As moms or dads, sister or brothers, family members or healthcare professionals, we need to know the wishes of our loved one or patient. Save a life, help others to carry out their wishes of being an eye, organ and tissue donor.