Friday, August 30, 2019, Jean Jacobs marked three years since her last corneal transplant operation. Of eight previous procedures, all improved her sight for a time, but none produced results lasting longer than six months. Her rare eye condition defied the amazing success rates of corneal transplants.
For Jean, these three years are a miracle. In 2016, she faced worsening eyesight, her doctor insisting one more corneal transplant was necessary, a new procedure and treatment with a 50-percent chance of success. Understandably nervous, Jean took a month to consider her options and to pray. “I turned it over to God and trusted him,” Jean says, crediting prayer and her faith with helping her reach such a difficult decision. Even still, she felt guilt for accepting another new cornea that could grant vision to someone else.
A sudden loss helped Jean reach her decision in a way no one could anticipate. In 2011, Jean’s older brother, who suffered from a chronic illness, died unexpectedly after complications from surgery. He was only 44. Jean received a call from Advancing Sight Network’s referral coordinator. Due to pneumonia, the only organs that could be donated by Jean’s brother were his two corneas.
Choosing to donate her brother’s corneas was an easy decision for Jean to make. Through the course of her treatments and surgeries over the years, Jean’s older brother was her inspiration, encouraging her and supporting her on her journey to regain her sight. Jean knew her brother would gladly donate his corneas to give someone else the opportunity to see. This also helped inspire Jean to pursue one final transplant operation; she knew it was what her brother would have wanted.
Eye donation changed her life in more ways than one. She was given the gift of seeing her children for the first time. She found hope and strength following the death of her brother. And today, Jean dedicates her time as a speaker and advocate for organ, eye and tissue donation.
Jean’s goal is to inspire others facing similar obstacles to keep going and never give up. “Everyone gets to the finish line at a different pace,” Jean says. She doesn’t use the word “disability.” Rather, Jean says, “Everyone has an ability.”
Kim Garner started her Sunday morning like any other – getting ready for church with her family. However, as she was getting dressed for the day, a binder ring she used in her closet sliced open the front of her eye. Immediately, Kim’s vision was impaired, and the pain was unbearable. Her husband rushed her to the emergency room.
“Everything went red, and then grey… and then black.”
Fearing permanent blindness, Kim’s local ER doctors sent her to an eye trauma center. There, the eye surgeon used a plastic cornea to protect the retina, and then replaced the damaged tissue with donor tissue provided by the Alabama Eye Bank.
Through the hard work of surgeons and tissue provided by the Alabama Eye Bank, Kim’s vision was restored. “It’s a miracle that I didn’t lose my sight,” she says. “And it’s all because of the generous decision someone made to be an eye donor.”
Today, Kim advocates for eye donation, knowing that her sight was saved thanks to the selfless gift of an eye donor.
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.”
Leslie Woodard’s childhood was full of adventure, fun and family. Born to a military father, she had the opportunity to travel the world, even living in Germany. She was an active gymnast who loved spending evenings around board games with her family. Life changed, however, when Leslie was 15. After noticing swelling in her legs, her grandmother, a nurse, made a doctor’s appointment for her. Here, she learned that her kidneys were losing function. She was told that she would need a transplant within the next several years.
Leslie continued to live a healthy life, always conscious of her diet and staying active, while undergoing years of dialysis. Finally, in her 30’s, a miracle happened. Her father, at the time an orthodontist, had formed a very close relationship to his assistant, Kim. Kim loved Dr. Woodard, even thinking of him as a second father, but had never gotten to know Leslie. That’s why when she came to the Woodards offering her kidney, the family was nothing short of shocked. Kim told Dr. Woodard and Leslie that God had come to her in a dream and told her to donate her kidney. Her faith was unwavering, and if she was nervous, she didn’t show it. From there, the process went swiftly and easily. Leslie received a transplant at the University of Pittsburg, and the surgery was a success for both parties.
“I was given a new life and a new spirit,” said Leslie. “Organ, eye and tissue donation changes lives in ways you could never imagine.”
But Leslie’s story doesn’t end there. After making a move to Birmingham, Alabama, Leslie continued to see job listings for a position working within the donation community. In 2014, she took the plunge and joined the team. Today, she works with Alabama Donor Services as a referral coordinator, screening organ, eye and tissue donation candidates and speaking with donor families. The Alabama Organ Center and the Alabama Eye Bank work hand in hand to give hope in a dark moment.
Her job isn’t always easy – she is tasked with approaching families only 30-45 minutes after the loss of their loved one. She then either asks them to give the gift of organ, eye and tissue donation or inform them about their loved one’s wishes. It’s a raw, emotional time that has an enormous impact on both the families and donor community. While some might consider the job draining, it gives Leslie hope and faith.
“When the families hear me out, just consider the option of donation, I know that they are kind, incredible people even in the height of their pain,” said Leslie. “And when they say yes, what I always know is that this person is an awesome, selfless person. It motivates me and feeds me.”
Leslie calls this conversation the first step in a “chain of kindness.” The gift of eye donation lights a spark in the hearts of the donor family, the recipient and the recipient’s family. When an eye recipient receives the new gift of sight, they are motivated to do good and make change. Coming out of blindness with the gift of a selfless donor creates a spark that spreads through communities, connecting people and inspiring more donation, more hope and more change.
Leslie is proud to be part of the donation community as a recipient and as a referral coordinator. She ends every day knowing that there is selflessness and kindness in the world. She has a renewed faith that people are good. It all started for Leslie with a kidney donation, but her chain of kindness isn’t over yet.
Jane Bradley has always prided herself on being an independent woman. Without family nearby, Jane has lived alone for years. This was always a good fit for her, as she has always enjoyed spending time with her friends at the local community center as much as she did enjoying her quiet home. However, a shift in Jane’s health put her entire lifestyle in jeopardy.
After being diagnosed with keratoconus, a disease affecting the front of the eye, Jane’s vision dipped just above and below being legally blind in each eye. At first, she dismissed the idea of eye surgery – she was afraid of losing the little bit of vision she still had. She began to use hard contact lenses and glasses to correct her constantly worsening vision. But soon, even these were not enough. The lenses were painful and ineffective, and Jane felt her independence slipping away. She realized that soon, she would no longer be able to drive her car or continue her work as a legal assistant. Even more frightening, she worried she would lose the ability to live on her own and would have to rely on others for day-to-day activities.
In 2010, Jane was referred to Dr. Cameron Griffith at the Southern Eye Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She approached the appointment nervously, but had faith in her new doctor. After her first consultation, surgery was scheduled, and 10 short weeks later, Jane received her first corneal transplant. Dr. Griffith warned her that recovery would be slow and not to expect an immediate restoration of vision after surgery. Jane feared the worst – remaining legally blind in both eyes. However, when Dr. Griffith removed the patch after her first transplant that December, Jane’s eye immediately saw and registered the eye chart across the exam room.
“You have given me the best Christmas present anyone has ever given me!” she exclaimed.
Over the next several weeks, her vision improved even more. She was even able to see individual leaves on trees – something she didn’t even realize was possible. It was a profound moment of awakening for Jane. She was regaining the independence that almost slipped away entirely. Undergoing surgery in her other eye was a no-brainer for Jane. Dr. Griffith, who she calls her hero, performed it as well. Now her vision in each of her eyes is “absolutely incredible.”
Jane’s bilateral corneal transplants gave her more than just independence – they gave her a purpose. She now works to spread the word about corneal transplants and eye donation. Her book, My Pathway to the Light, Overcoming Legal Blindness, details her journey and aims to answer all of the questions she found herself asking before surgery.
“There are 285 million people around the world with some degree of visual impairment. There are people who need to learn about their vision problems. I wanted to share my story to help guide them. I think I can give them hope,” she said.
Jane’s surgery also inspired another message from her to others: “Please, please, please, if any part of your body is healthy, consider donation, because you can profoundly change someone’s life.”
The Alabama Eye Bank is pleased to partner with the Mississippi Lions Eye Bank to provide tissue for local corneal transplants.
Danny Rivers’ life has been rooted in his faith. He grew up in a church he loved and continued to pursue his own spiritual journey throughout his life. His faith was tested, however, in 1994 when Danny was diagnosed with keratoconus during a routine eye doctor visit. He was only 18.
Keratoconus is an eye disease that causes the fibers in the cornea – the front part of the eye – to weaken. This prevents the cornea from being able to maintain its shape, resulting in a cone-shaped bulge in the front of the eye. This change makes vision worsen rapidly.
Danny’s doctor, Dr. Robert Phillips, gave the then-teenager a recommendation that shook him – Danny needed corneal transplant surgery, and he needed it as soon as possible. Danny found himself praying on an operating table only one week later.
The surgery, performed on one eye, went flawlessly. He remembers temporary, minor inconveniences such as sensitivity to light and loose sutures, but they were well worth the near 20/20 vision he obtained only a few weeks after surgery. So worth it, in fact, that he had surgery on his second eye only a few years later. Danny thanked God for the tremendous change in his life. He no longer had to worry about going blind from keratoconus.
But the story doesn’t end there. By an act that Danny says can only be Divine intervention, Danny was offered a way to give back in a more meaningful way than he could have imagined. In 2003, his father-in-law of only one year was facing polycystic kidney disease – the same disease that had killed his father when he was only a boy. He needed a transplant and was put on a transplant list with a 5-year waiting period. Danny made the courageous and selfless decision to be tested for compatibility with his father-in-law in March of 2003. Danny was a perfect match and underwent surgery just three months later. The surgery was a great success.
Danny says that his decision to donate his kidney was an easy one. His vision had been saved by two donors, and he felt that it was his calling to give back through organ donation. Today, Danny remains on the donor list and plans to be a donor. He also encourages others to become donors. In Danny’s words, “You never lose in life when you make the choice to give.”