Born premature and weighing just 2.5 pounds, Jean Jacobs was born a fighter. Doctors told her parents that she’d never walk, talk or see. Jean, over and over, proved them wrong. She never wanted to be treated any differently than her twin brother or three other siblings, and her parents agreed.
Although diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity, for which there was no treatment and left her legally blind, Jean worked hard in school and advanced to college. Eventually, Jean settled into a normal life, adapted to her low vision. She got married and became a mother to two sons.
And then one day, everything changed. While at the movie theater, Jean felt intense pain in her right eye, and lost all that was left of that eye’s vision. Fearful, she made an appointment with ophthalmologist Dr. Robert Phillips. He diagnosed her with keratoconus – a disease that causes the cornea, or front part of the eye, to become cone-shaped, resulting in low vision and discomfort.
Jean went through eight grueling transplants, each met with rejection. Even with courses of immunosuppressants, Jean’s body wouldn’t accept a new cornea. She was devastated, but remained hopeful, promising her young sons that she would one day be able to see.
Finally, Jean was invited to Emory University to receive the first ever artificial cornea. At first, it seemed like a miracle treatment. Her vision improved over a year, and she was asked to share her story on Discovery and other television programs. Unfortunately, the miracle was too good to be true, and a hole formed in the artificial cornea. This resulted in her eye ossifying, or turning to bone, and having to be removed. Jean was left with one “good” eye that was still legally blind.
From here, Jean was terrified to have any surgery done on her left eye. She made an appointment with Dr. Roswell Pfister, who agreed; she was instructed to wait and avoid any surgery. Five years later, her vision took another turn for the worse.
In 2016, in response to even worsening eyesight, Jean revisited Dr. Pfister. This time, he insisted she undergo one more corneal transplant. Otherwise, she would lose her vision entirely. There was a catch – this transplant only had a 50 percent chance of success.
Jean went home from the appointment and prayed for a month. She felt intense guilt over the corneas that she felt like she had “wasted’ in her previous transplants.
During this time, her older brother unexpectedly passed away. A devastated Jean received a very important call on the day her brother passed; it was the Alabama Eye Bank, asking if Jean would like to donate her brother’s only viable organs – his corneas. Jean felt like this was a sign from God, and readily approved the donation. Two people regained their sight, and Jean registered for her transplant.
Jean underwent surgery shortly after, and, miraculously, it was a success.
“Can I tell you what I saw after I had surgery?” asked Jean. “For the first time in 48 years, I saw an eye chart. And then I saw the color of my sons’ eyes for the first time in my life.”
Jean’s entire life changed with the gift of sight. Now, more than two years later and still in awe at her vision, she often sits outside and watches birds and rain.
“I can’t tell you what the gift of sight means. I can’t wait to see the little fingernails of my grandchildren. I got to see my son get married,” said Jean.
Today, Jean speaks about eye, organ and tissue donation as often as possible. She never carries notes or writes speeches. Instead, she speaks from the heart. She encourages others to do the same. In her words, “Tell everybody. Don’t wait until someone is sick to talk about donation.”