During my military career, I had a number of duties including preparing soldiers for deployments. As platoon sergeant and medical specialist, I performed medical and drug screenings.A fellow soldier worked at Advancing Sight, which was then called the Alabama Eye Bank. We talked about how they helped patients across the world, and that opened my eyes to the gift that donors and their families provided.After observing several eye tissue recoveries, I knew this was the next step in my career. That was 11 years ago, and I’m still going strong.The most important part of my job is to recover the eye tissue to the best of my ability so it can be used to restore eyesight. I always tell families, “thank you so much for your donation and your gift of sight during this difficult time. You and your family are greatly appreciated.” I also explain the process and let them know their loved one will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.
An experience with organ donation during his first year of general surgery rotation made a lasting impression on Dr. Mamoun Pacha. It was 1976, and Dr. Pacha received a phone call from Dr. Johanssen, chief of the Renal Transplant Department at the University of Illinois. “Be ready,” she told him. They would be driving several hours to recover kidneys from an organ donor.
Dr. Pacha was nervous about assisting in such an important procedure, but he knew Dr. Johanssen was one of the most respected physicians in the field of surgery and transplantation.
As Dr. Pacha assisted in recovering the kidneys, he remembers another doctor at the head of the table who was recovering the donor’s eyes. He said to Pacha, “I have some important news to deliver to some nice people today.”
Back in Chicago, a nine-year-old Latino boy had been waiting on a compatible kidney donor for several years. He developed renal disease at a young age, and a transplant was his best hope. Dr. Pacha assisted Dr. Johanssen as they took the donor kidneys and performed a successful transplant for the little boy.
When Dr. Pacha checked on the young transplant recipient, a nurse shared a funny story. The boy had been so excited to use the bathroom after the surgery. “Urination was a privilege for him,” said Dr. Pacha. (more…)
Jennifer stood in a hospital room with her brothers, making the difficult decision to take their mother off life support. Her mom had a number of health issues at the time, and Jennifer and her brothers had already given up on the idea of organ donation.
“I remember when I was a girl, my mom said she wanted to donate her body to science,” Jennifer recalls. “She wanted to do that so she could help others.”
As she was leaving the hospital after her mother passed, Jennifer got a surprising call asking if she would be willing to donate her mom’s corneas. “I was so excited to get that call. It was an easy decision,” she remembers. “We were not on the fence at all.”
As Jennifer and her brothers were saying goodbye to their mother, Howell Bigham was preparing for cornea transplant surgery. Howell struggled with Fuch’s dystrophy, an eye disease that can lead to vision loss, for years. “It reached the point where I was almost legally blind,” says Howell. “It was unsafe for me to drive.
Howell knew it was time to consider surgery when it became difficult to enjoy his favorite activities like reading, writing, and yard work. His surgeon, Dr. John Parker, successfully performed corneal transplants in both eyes, and Howell was able to see clearly for the first time in years. (more…)
Judy Wilson is a woman on the go. Between her two passions, world travel and her family, Judy doesn’t have the time or patience for anything to hold her back. She spent her life making (and achieving) incredible goals, like her dreams of snow skiing with each of her grandchildren.
When she was diagnosed with Fuchs’ dystrophy, a disease that ultimately leads to vision loss, in 2005, her life didn’t change. “I wasn’t experiencing vision loss or pain. I just knew that eventually, it would have to be taken care of,” remembers Judy.
Ten years later, Judy’s diagnosis was mentioned once again during a screening for cataracts. “Surely you know that you have Fuchs’,” said her doctor. Judy’s response: “Is that bad?”
Judy knew she had to take this seriously. She received a “nudge from God” when her neighbor recommended a visit to Dr. Jack Parker at Parker Cornea. She still remembers telling Dr. Parker in their first meeting, “I only have two eyes. I’ll go to the Netherlands if it means having this surgery done well!”
As it turns out, that trans-Atlantic trip was not going to be a necessary one. Dr. Parker was a perfect fit for her most important requirement: a doctor with experience. Years of training, thousands of surgeries and careful attention to detail brought Dr. Parker to the top of her list. (more…)
Maggie Caraway was a 15-year-old known for her positive attitude and her giving spirit. “Maggie’s strongest desire was to help others,” says her mom, Kimberly. “Throughout her life she loved giving to others. She gave gifts to teachers and friends for special occasions or sometimes, just because.”
Tragically, Maggie unexpectedly passed away on April 15, 2019. Just one month before her death, Maggie registered to be an organ donor when she received her drivers permit. Her mom says it is a decision Maggie made without hesitation.
“On the day of her passing, we received a call about donating Maggie’s corneas,” says Kimberly. “Without question we said yes, knowing the opportunity to restore someone’s eyesight would be her greatest gift of all.”
Maggie’s generosity allowed two people to receive corneal transplants. The recipients wrote Kimberly to thank her for the gift of restored eyesight. Frank, a grandfather who has struggled with his sight for over 20 years, told Kimberly, “The gift your daughter gave me will always be appreciated.”
Maggie’s unselfish gift even had a global impact. Rhengu, a mom in China who was unable to work after losing her vision, says, “Your daughter is so beautiful, kind, and generous. Without her donation, I wouldn’t have my present life and would continue to live in the dark.”
Though the pain of losing her youngest child is still extremely difficult, Kimberly treasures her memories of Maggie. “She wasn’t a chatty teenager, but she was wise beyond her years,” Kimberly says. “My favorite memory is when she was elected freshman maid in homecoming court. She was beautiful as she was escorted by her father. Maggie was so happy in that moment. It was breathtaking.”
Kimberly takes comfort knowing Maggie is seeing the world through the eyes of her cornea recipients. “I know Maggie is smiling from heaven because God allowed her to give one last gift. She is now seeing the beauty of the world through the eyes of others,” Kimberly says.
Kimberly views organ, eye, and tissue donation as a way to give one of life’s greatest gifts. “To me, donating an organ is one of the ultimate gifts you can give,” she says. “If someone else may benefit from something you have, then why not?”
You can make a difference by registering to be an organ, eye, and tissue donor at www.advancingsight.org or use the Health app on your iPhone.
Help others today by making a financial gift to Advancing Sight Network. As a nonprofit organization, we appreciate the support of our community to help restore sight. Give today at www.advancingsight.org/give-financially.
Dave Smith never did anything halfway. From creating intricate sets for schools and church productions to building a business, Dave put his entire heart into everything he did. It came naturally to him, especially with his wife, Jackie, at his side every step of the way. They worked together, played together and laughed together as true soul mates, together since their teenage years. They declared 2018 to be the year of their “renaissance belle” – their new beginning. That’s why his sudden passing that year, at only age 50, was so especially gutting.
“Everyone says and remembers nice things about someone who passes away, but Dave was special,” says Jackie. “He was a visionary and a creator. He was intelligent and generous and an amazing husband and father.”
Jackie did have one complaint – She could never give gifts as well as him. She recalled one present in particular that she holds close to her heart. Dave, an outstanding artist and visionary, spent weeks working on it. On Christmas Eve, the day they always opened presents as a family, Jackie unwrapped an action figure like no other. It was made of pieces and parts of others, crafted and painted to look exactly like her. It came complete in a box with action figure accessories, a tiny bible and scrabble board, as well as a written description of her on the back of the box. “You’d believe it could be on a store shelf,” Jackie said.
“It was no wonder that he was able to give something even after his passing, especially a gift that would change lives of two complete strangers,” continued Jackie. “He had beautiful, blue eyes that saw things in a way that no one else could. His eyes were so important to who he was, and giving those to someone else is my way of honoring him.”
Dave suffered a heart attack on Thanksgiving night after spending a wonderful day with his family. Jackie remembers feeling like the air was sucked out of the house as she heard it happening, and she still doesn’t feel like it returned. She still longs for her husband and feels like she’s missing a piece of herself, but she knows in her heart that everything happens as part of a greater plan.
“We are put on this Earth for a reason. I believe that reason is to give. It means so much to me that he’s still giving through his donation.”
When asked what she would say if she could meet the two people who are seeing as a result of her husband’s cornea donation, Jackie said, “Dave’s eyes were so precious. He used them to watch over his family and create beautiful art. I’d tell his recipients Dave’s story, and I’d ask them to seek the things he loved and to work to see things creatively, just as he did.”
For months after Dave’s passing, Jackie found love notes he left her around the house, and on the Christmas Eve almost exactly one month later, she found his final gift: a beautiful, red coat hidden in his closet for her.
Today, Jackie continues to chase her renaissance belle. “I’m finding my new beginning by giving to others and digging through ashes to find beauty.” She looks forward to a life with her new grandchild. “We were supposed to do this together,” Jackie remarked. “I know he gets to see what we are all accomplishing, and he is proud of us.”
Jackie knows that Dave’s story can’t be fully told in an article or anecdote. That’s why she’s been inspired and drawn to write his story in a novel that she’s titled Renaissance Belle. With an expected publish date in late 2020, stay tuned for more of this story of love, generosity and vision.