Anne Ford 2015-12-08 16:51:22
Meet Fran Grabowski of Michigan and you’d never know that the effervescent former teacher and pastor came close to completely losing his sight. Grabowski’s journey not only took him from near-blindness to extraordinary vision—it also brought him to Lions. Grabowski and others tell the tale of how the Lions of Michigan helped bring glorious light where there was terrible darkness. FRAN GRABOWSKI: When I turned 40, I had to get bifocals. As depressed as I was about getting older, I was excited that I was going to be able to see better. We’re talking 20/800, 20/900 vision without glasses. TAMMIE GRABOWSKI, WIFE: His eyesight was terrible. It was to the point where he could drive if he had to—but if I was there, I was the driver, because it was safer. GRABOWSKI: I got these new bifocals, and I’m playing golf with my son, and I can’t see the flag. I’m asking him, “Where’s the flag?” To be funny, he says, “On the green.” I’m like, “No, seriously, where?” He says, “You really can’t see the flag?” It was pretty much that way the whole way around the golf course. I thought they had made a mistake in grinding my lenses. I took ‘em back in, and a young technician said, “Hold on a second.” She took a pen light out of her pocket and shined it in the sides of my eyes, and she said, “I’m going to go get the doctor.” I’m like, “That’s not good.” Turns out, the technician had seen, just with her naked eye, that my corneas were misshapen. The doctor ran some tests and found I had a hereditary disease called keratoconus. It’s a thinning and a warping of the cornea. That warping means that glasses won’t work, because by the time the light is refracted by the glasses and hits the eyeball, it’s all screwed up. LISA LANGLEY, AN ANN ARBOR HOST LION AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE ANN ARBOR-BASED NONPROFIT EYE BANK AND RESEARCH CENTER, EVERSIGHT MICHIGAN: The cornea is the size of a dime. It’s a clear window in the very front of the eye, over the iris. When we look out of our eye, we just take it for granted that there’s a window there and it’s clean. When that cornea becomes clouded, your world changes. It’s as if you were trying to look out of a windshield during a rainstorm and your wipers aren’t working, or someone placed five layers of waxed paper over your eye. Grabowski’s ophthalmologist recommended a corneal transplant, an outpatient procedure in which a diseased or damaged cornea is removed and replaced with a healthy cornea from a deceased donor. Grabowski underwent a cornea transplant in his right eye on Aug. 31, 2011. Eversight Michigan provided the cornea, and Dr. Stephen Higgins of Kalamazoo Ophthalmology performed the surgery. TAMMIE: We were pretty scared that he would go blind if something went wrong. There was not a lot of sleeping going on the night before. GRABOWSKI: They used local anesthetic and put me into a twilight sleep. I don’t remember anything about the surgery. They had told me they’d use a thing called an optical speculum to keep my eye open. I was like, “Okay, I don’t want to know any more about that.” Afterward, my eye looked like I got hit by a baseball bat. I had colors around my eye that I did not know could exist in the flesh—greens and purples and blues. TAMMIE: He went home with a shield over his eye. We had to go back the next morning, and as soon as they took that shield off, he said, “I can already see better than I could before.” They said, “It’s only going to get better from here.” We were excited. If it’s this good after 24 hours, and you’re telling us it’s going to take a year to heal, how much better is it going to get? That’s one day—what’s 364 more going to show us? Over the next year, while they waited for the transplant to finish healing, the Grabowskis grew curious about Eversight Michigan and its mission. GRABOWSKI: Tammie and I decided to go to Eversight and take a tour. And it wasn’t just the nickel tour—we got the deluxe package. We found out that the Lions started Eversight [then called the Michigan Eye Bank] back in 1957. LANGLEY: Lion Dr. John W. Henderson was our founder. A man’s dying wish was to donate his eyes, but there was no eye bank in Michigan, even though the first cornea transplant had been done back in 1905. So Dr. Henderson joined the Lions and went to virtually every Lions club in the state, rallying them to help him form an eye bank, helping him tell people that they could be eye donors. That was a pretty bold and brave thing to do. I mean, kidneys weren’t transplanted until 1971. This was brand-new stuff. Our youngest cornea recipient was 3 days old, and our oldest was 100 years old. We’ve helped nearly 90,000 people see again since our inception. We are a state project of the Lions of Michigan, and we are truly very proud to be affiliated with and founded by them. We rely on Lions. GRABOWSKI: On the tour, we got to go in the laboratory and hold an actual cornea in a shipping container. There was a doctor in there, practicing separating the layers of a cornea, which is only as thick as a piece of Saran wrap. In the last room of the tour was where the counselors were, the people who speak with the donors’ families. I stepped in that room, and that was a life-changing moment, because it became real to me as to why I have this gift. This gift came with a big price. Because on the other end of the phone are people who are going through the gut-wrenching pain of grief, but who are selflessness enough to donate eye tissue, to give people the gift of sight. TAMMIE: That’s the only reason my husband can see right now, because somebody died and gave him that tissue. GRABOWSKI: After that day, I told the Eversight folks: “Have eyes, will travel. You need a spokesperson, and God has given me the gift of gab.” They said, “We’ll sure use you.” But Grabowski had another surgery to undergo. On Dec. 19, 2012, he went in for a second cornea transplant, this time in his left eye. Again, Dr. Higgins did the surgery. GRABOWSKI: I woke up saying, “Well, I’m glad I won’t have to go through that again.” And one of the nurses said, “We didn’t get to do the transplant.” I was like, “Excuse me? What?” TAMMIE: I should have been clued in when they took me into a back room. When Dr. Higgins came in, he just looked exhausted. He said, “Well, things did not go as planned. I did my best, but there is the chance that we’ve lost his eye.” They got about halfway around the incision to remove Fran’s cornea, and basically the whole inside of his eye started to swell and come out through the incision. GRABOWSKI: As it turned out, we went in the next morning, and they took off the shield, and I did have vision. Dr. Higgins gave a big sigh and said, “Now I can tell you things are OK.” He saved my eye. Had I had a less skilled surgeon, I’d now have one eye and one prosthetic eye. I was ready to try the transplant again, but we had to wait at least six months. Finally, on March 19, 2013, Grabowski underwent a successful cornea transplant in his left eye. GRABOWSKI: This time, at Dr. Higgins’ recommendation, we went to the Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, because there they could have a retina surgeon standing right next to the cornea surgeon. This time there was no hemorrhaging, no nothing. My results have been phenomenal. I see 20/15 out of my right eye and 20/20 out of my left eye. I can see like an eagle. I don’t need corrective lenses. The folks at the DMV didn’t believe me. I had to tell ’em, “Corneal transplants.” They were like, “Holy mackerel!” TAMMIE: It used to be that he would always say: “What does that sign say? What does the TV say?” And now I’m the one saying, “What’s the scoreboard say?” and he’s telling me. He always says, “I can almost see into the future!” Grabowski made good on his promise to Eversight. As an Eversight Ambassador, he’s on the road constantly, speaking about his experience to groups such as the Lions. GRABOWSKI: I was going to events that Eversight was having, and I’d notice all these Lions. In the car afterward, either my wife or myself would say, “Why aren’t we Lions?” And the other person would go, “I don’t know. I don’t even know how you become a Lion.” Then I met Lion Don Brown, who is a member of the Eversight Board of Trustees and a member of the Paw Paw Lions. DON BROWN: Fran said to me, “I want to thank you for giving me back my sight.” I said, “Don’t thank me, thank the Lions of Michigan; it’s they who gave you back your sight, along with Eversight.” GRABOWSKI: Then he said, “Come to my club and tell your story.” So I went and spoke to his club in Paw Paw, and afterward he thanked me. He was holding two applications to the Lions, one for me and one for my wife. As soon as he invited us, it was like, “Yes, we’re in, we’re joining.” I’ve become super-active in the club, and now I’m president of it, and my wife is the membership chair. I tease people that I’m going to be the first international president with two corneal transplants. And now I go to Lions clubs all over the state, letting them see how their money’s being spent. I thank them on behalf of people like me, who were blind but now can see. I talk about how I’ve gone from what would have been a life of indistinguishable colors, not being able to see my wife’s face, not being able to drive or read or play golf . . . My life would be so much different. And these transplants have given me another shot. I get asked all the time if I know anything about my donors. Their names are known only to God, but I think about them every day, and I’m thankful that they and their families were forward-thinking enough to leave a little something behind. These people live on through me. They continue to see through me. I see through the eyes of angels. The list of Lions eye banks can be found by searching for “eye banks” at lionsclubs.org. Digital LION The pioneering Buffalo Eye Bank celebrates its silver anniversary. Read the story from the January 1971 LION at lionmagazine.org.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.