Barbara Brotman 2014-03-12 17:01:20
A Vanishing World Returns Corneal Transplant for Mother of Five Gives Her Life Back Look around. What would you miss seeing most if you went blind? The sunrise. The lake. The spot in your living room where the morning sun pours in. Your spouse. Your child. Your friends. All the sights your eyes drink in–words on a page, expressions on a face, the center line down a road— what if they started to fade before your eyes? For Sarah Mittler, it began with her clock. "I looked up at the clock and was like, ‘Holy cow,’” says Mittler, a mother of five in Tinley Park, a Chicago suburb. “I thought it must be dirty.” She took the clock off the wall and cleaned it. It still looked dirty. Everything was starting to become blurry. Her kitchen, the stairs, her children's faces, utensils in the drawer–they all ran together like mud. It was as if her eyes were coated with petroleum jelly. She thought there was something wrong with the lights at the grocery store. She asked her husband why he had installed dimmers at home. While driving, she groused at all the motorists crossing the lane into hers. But there was nothing wrong with the lights. And she was the one crossing the lane lines. Mittler had Fuchs’ endothelial dystrophy, in which cells inside the cornea deteriorate. Fluid builds inside the cornea, causing vision problems and potentially blindness. It usually proceeds slowly, over years. In Mittler’s case, it was galloping. Within months, she could barely see in the mornings when the fluid buildup was greatest. Her children had to guide her down the stairs. Her teenage daughter, Grace, had to drive the younger kids to school. Mittler used a hair dryer on her eyes, which dries out the blisters caused by the condition, and about which she says, “You think your hair is bad in the morning? Blow-dry your eyes.” It helped, but only temporarily. She couldn’t see her children's faces, read their moods, sense the time for a quiet after-school conversation. “Slowly, things were being taken away,” she says. After a terrifying drive where she couldn't see the traffic signal at a major intersection, “I put my keys on the counter and told my husband, ‘I cannot do this anymore. I am going to kill them or someone else,’” she says. The next week she saw her doctor at Loyola University Health System. She was going blind, she told him. But please, could he just slow down the process long enough for her to see a few last things? Her daughter Amine graduating eighth grade. Her son Tommy playing on the baseball travel team. Grace picking out her dress for homecoming. Just one more moment with each of her children, she pleaded; just one more time seeing her grandson in her arms. But she wouldn’t need one more moment, the doctor told her. She would have many moments, for years to come. She was an ideal candidate for a corneal transplant. More than 1,160 people in Illinois received corneal transplants last year. Mittler had hers at Loyola. The morning after the transplant on her left eye, her husband, Tom, lifted the eye patch to put in drops. He told her to keep her eye shut to protect it against the light. She opened the eye anyway. There were four of her five children, gathered to watch the unveiling. She could see them. It turned out that her post-surgical eye wept as well as it saw. And it saw very well. She could see the mortar between the bricks in the house across the street, she excitedly told the community engagement coordinator at the Illinois Eye- Bank, which Lions support, by phone the next day. The petunias the neighbors had planted. Lights on the Christmas tree. Cracks in the wall. “She was, like, ‘The house is so dusty,’” says Grace, 19. “We're like, ‘Can you get the doctor to redo the surgery?’” Five days later, at a farmer’s market, “I was running around like a crazy person. The sunflowers, the peppers, the vibrancy of the colors ... I was (saying), ‘Oh, my gosh, look at this! Look at this! Look at this!’” She had the surgery on her right eye a few months later. She now sees so well that she no longer wears glasses. Mittler wrote letters of thanks to the families of both donors. Such letters are delivered anonymously by the Illinois Eye-Bank, leaving further contact up to those involved. Her first donor was a 10-year-old whose cause of death the family did not specify. The family of her second donor chose not to respond. Mittler is well aware of the sadness irrevocably attached to her joy. Before her second surgery, “I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, this is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Somebody is going to be really grieving,’” she says. “To see that somebody in that depth of grief could still turn around and want to do good for someone else ... In my world, they're a hero,” she says. Mittler is now an ambassador for the Illinois Eye-Bank, telling her story at public events and urging people to become donors. She recently took part in Loyola's annual candle lighting ceremony honoring donors and families who have donated organs or tissue through the state’s Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Network. “The hardest part of being a cornea recipient is when I share my story to donor families,” she says. “It’s a very humbling experience. They come up and look into my eyes.” A year after her surgeries, the Eye-Bank coordinator teasingly asked if Mittler still saw dirt in her house. She still saw the dirt, Mittler told her, but she didn’t care; there was too much else to see. And thanks to two people she will never meet, she can see it all. Reprinted with permission of the Chicago Tribune.
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