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.
We caught up with Howell Bigham just a few weeks after he wrote thank you letters to two very special families. As he writes these letters each year, he appreciates doing so without the need for eyeglasses.
Howell’s vision problems began in fourth grade. Howell, his twin brother, and his mother struggled with Fuchs’ Dystrophy, an eye disease that eventually leads to vision loss. It made his favorite activities like reading, writing, and working in the yard, incredibly difficult. As his vision continued to deteriorate into his mid-fifties, he found himself struggling to do simple tasks.
“It reached the point where I was almost legally blind. It was unsafe for me to drive,” said Howell.
As his condition continued to worsen, Howell was informed that he needed a cornea transplant in both eyes. While eager to have better eyesight, the prospect of surgery frightened him.
After meeting with Dr. John Parker at Parker Cornea, the surgery was scheduled for his left eye and then a few months later, his right. Thanks to the generous donations of corneal tissue, Dr. Parker was able to perform two successful transplant surgeries that changed Howell’s life.
Post-surgery, Howell realized the fear and anxiety he had felt were unnecessary. “The surgery didn’t hurt. The most difficult part was lying on my back for 48 hours following each transplant,” he said. It was a small price to pay to transition from nearly legally blind to seeing clearly without glasses.
These days, Howell’s life has done a complete turn-around. At nearly 60, he spends the majority of his time reading – without the assistance of the glasses he’d worn since the fourth grade. He’s also in the midst of editing his novel, a fiction crime thriller. Howell says this would have been nearly impossible prior to his surgery.
“These days, I spend my time writing, reading, and seeing the beauty of the mountains in the fall and the ocean in the summer and clouds in the sky,” said Howell. “Also, I can recognize people now after my surgery. Before I couldn’t even recognize the face of someone I knew!”
After 33 years of preaching the Gospel full-time, Howell transitioned to working full time with the Good Samaritan Hospice in Florence, Alabama as their Chaplain and as a Community Education Specialist.
“Without my transplants, this would’ve been impossible,” says Howell. “My transplants have allowed me to enjoy life more as my wife Jackie and I visit our two grown children, Jonathan and Hannah. In fact, I will be performing the wedding ceremony for our daughter Hannah this August. Needless to say, it would’ve been extremely difficult to do this without the selfless sacrifice of two wonderful people- my donors.”
Howell knows this change couldn’t have come without the sacrifice of two very special donors. That’s why he uses his God-given talent of writing to express his gratitude via letters each year. He thanks his donor families for making decisions that improved his entire quality of life.
“I’d love to meet face to face and try to adequately express just how much their loved one has positively changed my life. I’d like to say to them that their family member lives on through their donation,” said Howell.
While Howell has never met his donors’ families in person, he feels close to them. He isn’t sure how he can say “thank you” enough for their gift, but he knows that his letters are a great start.
Make a difference today by registering to be an organ, eye, and tissue donor. Use the Health app on your iPhone, register here, or sign up when you renew your driver’s license.
Jeffrey Payne takes charge of life. As a retired corrections officer, father of four, grandfather of four more and husband to the love of his life, he didn’t have time for failing vision. (more…)
Art is “in my blood,” says Charlie Busler. He’s been exhibiting and selling his paintings for over 40 years. His love for art began many years ago.
“I had lots of art supplies as a teenager. I still have an oil painting I painted in my teen years on a piece of scrap plywood from a construction site,” Charlie recalls.
When glaucoma and an autoimmune disorder caused severe, painful blisters in his right eye, Charlie was in danger of losing his eyesight. It’s a devastating loss for anyone, especially an artist.
Dr. Priscilla Fowler, UAB ophthalmologist and Advancing Sight Network board member, told Charlie he would need a corneal transplant to relieve the pain and restore his eyesight. “I watched Charlie lose time and productivity as an artist as his corneal condition worsened,” said Dr. Fowler. “It became clear that surgical intervention was our only option.”
“I did not have any concerns about the surgery because the blisters in my eye were so terribly painful,” Charlie remembers. “I have full confidence in Dr. Fowler and the Callahan Eye Hospital staff.”
Using donated corneal tissue, Dr. Fowler was able to perform a successful surgery. “Through the gift of a cornea donor, Charlie was able to receive a cornea transplant that restored his sight, and he is as productive as ever as an artist. His journey truly highlights the great impact that cornea transplantation and the restoration of sight can have on a person’s life,” she says.
Following his transplant, Charlie created brand new paintings for an exhibit at Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He describes it as the highpoint of his painting career.
“I was honored and humbled by the invitation to produce this show, and I worked for ten months creating never before seen paintings designed specifically for this gallery,” Charlie says. “It was a wonderful experience since I had great vision, seeing clearly, to produce the work.”
At the age of seventy, Charlie has no intention of slowing down anytime soon, and he continues to create beautiful art. The experience did prompt Charlie to register as an organ, eye, and tissue donor, something he had not done before his transplant.
To the families who donated their loved ones’ corneas, Charlie offers his humble thanks. “I received it as an important gift, and I would encourage everyone to consider becoming a donor,” he says.
Charlie’s work is available at Brown’s Fine Art and Framing in Jackson, Mississippi.
Make a difference today by registering to be an organ, eye, and tissue donor. Use the Health app on your iPhone, register here, or sign up when you renew your drivers license.
Partner with us to restore eyesight to as many people as possible by making a financial gift to Advancing Sight Network. Give online or mail your gift to Advancing Sight Network, Development Office, 500 Robert Jemison Road, Birmingham,
When Angie Kimbrell started having painful flare-ups in her right eye, her ophthalmologist blamed allergies. Her doctor prescribed steroid treatments and new contacts, but no matter what she tried, her eye kept getting worse. One morning, Angie woke up to find she was completely blind in her right eye.
Afraid and in pain, Angie’s husband rushed her to the doctor. A new ophthalmologist was able to alleviate Angie’s pain, but no one could determine the reason why she had lost her vision. Without knowing the cause, there was little hope of restoring her eyesight. Angie and her husband, Tim, prayed for a miracle.
Tim and Angie believe God led them to Dr. Esen Akpek in Baltimore and a diagnosis they had waited a long time for. Dr. Akpek explained to Angie that an autoimmune disorder called ankylosing spondylosis was causing fever blisters in her eye. Angie’s body was attacking itself, and Dr. Akpek helped Angie fight back.
Thanks to the generous gift of an eye tissue donor and Dr. Akpek’s expertise, Angie received a corneal transplant that restored sight in her right eye. Her husband, who serves as the president of the Alabama Coroner’s Association, has worked closely with Advancing Sight Network for years, helping to coordinate eye tissue donations. He has a new appreciation for people who make the decision to donate.
“If someone hadn’t donated, where would my wife be today? She wouldn’t have any sight,” Tim said, grateful for the gift of sight that had such a powerful impact on his family.
As for Angie, she has a deep sense of gratitude for her donor. She and Tim credit their faith, a generous eye tissue donor, and Dr. Akpek for her restored sight.
Registering to be an eye tissue donor is easy, and your gift can restore in people like Angie who need sight-saving surgeries.
In 2010, 16-year-old Carson Sumpter visited a sports medicine doctor with what he suspected was a pulled muscle in his leg. This “normal, healthy” teenager was diagnosed with stage 4 osteosarcoma (bone cancer) at that appointment. It would be a devastating diagnosis for anyone, and it was especially heartbreaking in someone so young. Carson’s mom, Kim McBrayer, said her son had a special gift for connecting with people and caring about them, and an infectious smile. As he faced cancer treatment, he was an inspiration and a light to those around him more than ever before.
Carson was a musical prodigy who could play any instrument and was a member of his high school band and his church worship band. After his diagnosis, Carson offered comfort to his bandmates Nick Williams and Mark Hermecz. “He just kept repeating to me, ‘Hey, it’s going to be all right,'” Hermecz said. “Carson was one of the strongest men I ever knew.”
“He chose to live joyfully,” said Connie Nolen, a teacher at Pelham High School whose son played on the golf team with Carson. Nolen said she was amazed by Carson’s approach to life with a positive attitude. “I think that Carson Sumpter was my teacher.”
Rebecca Burnett, who taught Carson in the ninth grade, added: “Every time I saw Carson, he was joyful,” Burnett said. “Here he was battling cancer and he was always asking me sincerely … ‘How are you?'”
Carson died July 12, 2011, almost a year after his diagnosis. But his legacy lives on years after his passing. “He did more in 17 years than most people do in 70,” Kim said.
As a lifelong giver, the choice to donate his corneas was an easy one. He became a registered donor when he first got his permit, and his family knew of his wishes long before his diagnosis. While his cancer made the rest of his organs and tissue ineligible for transplant, two individuals are now able to see with the help of corneas donated by Carson. Through his gift, Carson’s legacy of comfort and hope lives on today.
His mom remains ever grateful for the 17 years she had with Carson. Kim says the key to happiness after such a loss is to be thankful for her son. Knowing that he lives on by helping two people see gives her hope and comfort.
In the spring of 2014, Cameron Stovall lost his sight doing what he loved. At age 26, he was turkey hunting with cousins on a farm, and despite communicating with one another about their movements, Cameron ended up in the line of fire and was struck with 150 shotgun pellets. A college graduate who was working his dream job, Cameron now faced the rest of his life without his sight.
“We wondered how Cam would live in this world as a blind man,” Mary Stovall, Cameron’s mother, said. “He loved the outdoors. He loved to hunt. He loved life. He was so athletic and only 26 years old. He had his whole life ahead of him.”
“I was seen by multiple physicians who gave me very little hope that any of my vision would ever be restored, but Dr. Robert Morris took my case on a whim,” Cameron said. Dr. Kristen Bains was also an enormous part of Cameron’s recovery, including preforming surgery to improve the vision in his left eye. After numerous operations, the most recent a corneal transplant in October 2018 from donor tissue, Cameron has recovered 10 percent vision in his left eye. “It may not sound like a lot, but it is a tremendous amount for someone who spent almost seven weeks completely blind,” Cameron said.
It is enough that Cameron is able to work in his chosen field, and to once again enjoy the outdoors he loves so much. He even recently built a home of his own and moved out of his parents’ home for the first time since the accident.
“Losing my vision completely stopped me in my tracks.,” Cameron recalled. “It taught me so much about the people around me, my friends and family, and a lot about myself. Those trials were a blessing and still are on a daily basis,” he added.
Today, Cameron dedicates a portion of his free time to sharing his message of hope and encouragement with others at schools, colleges, and churches, among others. “Any opportunity I have to encourage someone, that’s what I do,” Cameron said. “Everyone’s affected by something, struggles on a daily basis. The way we handle that struggle is what speaks to people.”
“I share a lot about Helen Keller and what she overcame, being the first deaf and blind person to ever graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Ann Sullivan gets lost in (Helen’s) story. She devoted her whole life to Helen being able to communicate with her,” Cameron said. He went on to add: “That’s what Dr. Morris and Dr. Bains, and the eyes of donors have done for me. They’re my Ann Sullivan.”