Maria Blackburn 0000-00-00 00:00:00
On a bright, sunny day in western Colorado, you might find Matthew Goodwin skiing off 40-foot cliffs, mountain biking with friends or letting his dogs Ivan and Lola pull him and his skateboard around the lake near his Snowmass home. Whatever he doing, he’s likely to be in motion. “I’m never standing still, ever,” says Goodwin. “Even when I’m supposed to be, I’m still tapping my fingers or my toes.” However, just more than one year ago, the 27-year-old cook was so immobilized by pain that he couldn’t even look at the mountains surrounding his home, much less ski down them. An eye disease called keratoconus, diagnosed when he was 15, was causing corneal infections that were so painful and made his eyes so light sensitive that he had to call in sick to work and take refuge in the bathroom, the darkest room in his home, for days on end. More significantly, keratoconus was robbing Goodwin of his eyesight. By October 2008, vision in his right eye had so deteriorated that he could see only a half inch in front of him without his hard contacts. His right eye would no longer tolerate a contact lens. His left eye would soon follow. Without corneal transplants, Goodwin would go blind. But he had no insurance. And his $24,000 annual salary wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of the two $15,000 surgeries. Overwhelmed with the searing pain and worried about the future, he curled up his bathroom floor in a quilt and cried himself to sleep. Just when he thought his situation might be hopeless, Manuel Gomez of the Basalt Lions Club invited Goodwin to his next meeting. Gomez, a family friend, thought the Lions could help. Goodwin knew nothing about the Lion’s mission to be “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness,” but he agreed to go to tell his story. “I was hoping for the best but not really expecting anything out of it,” says Goodwin. Little did he know at the time how much this decision would change his life. Facing Blindness Goodwin was in his first week of his freshman year of high school when he realized that he was unable to read the trombone sheet music on his music stand. An optometrist diagnosed him with astigmatism, or irregularly shaped corneas, and fitted him with glasses. Six months later, the 15-year-old returned to the optometrist. The correction in the lenses was no longer working and his eyesight had gotten markedly worse. “It was like I was looking through the dimpled glass of a shower door,” he explains. That’s when a specialist in Denver diagnosed keratoconus, a thinning of the cornea which causes the eye to become cone shaped. The condition affects about one in 2,000 people. Goodwin was told that the disease may be caused by environment or genetics. He also learned that while wearing hard contact lenses would help correct his vision, there is no cure for the degenerative disease and one day he might need a corneal transplant. Goodwin is a slightly built young man with a mop of curly hair and intense blue eyes. He faced the diagnosis with his usual optimism. “I thought if they keep coming up with new and better contact lenses then I can just keep wearing contacts and won’t have to have surgery,” he says. Despite the diagnosis he was captain of the wrestling team, played in the band and edited the literary magazine at Basalt High School. After graduation, he traveled, got a job as a cook and became a sponsored skier. But his keratoconus was always a major factor. Every time his corneas changed, Goodwin needed a new pair of $250 hard contacts. He went through about two dozen pairs through the years, racking up medical bills that he paid with his mother’s help and by working extra shifts. Beyond the expense, the pain and irritation were constant. Frequent eye infections made the contacts too painful to wear and he had to stop driving. At the restaurant, he accidentally burned and cut himself in the kitchen because of his lost depth perception and near blindness in one eye. Proud of his self-sufficiency, he hid his disability from everyone but his family and closest friends. “I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” he explains. In June 2008, Goodwin’s optometrist told him that his right eye would no longer tolerate a contact lens and that he needed a corneal transplant. The news was devastating. “I was really scared,” he says. “I had no idea how I was going to pay for it.” His job at the pizzeria didn’t provide health insurance, and no insurer would cover his vision because the keratoconus was a pre-existing condition. That summer he applied for Medicare/Medicaid. He was told he would have to first go blind, be unable to work for one year and be termed disabled before he could begin the process of applying for transplant surgery. It could take two years, a timeline he found unacceptable. “There is no reason why in a first-world country that someone in their 20s should have to put their life on hold for a surgery,” he says. “I wanted to continue to work and contribute to society.” Lions to the Rescue On a Wednesday evening in November of 2008, Goodwin went to a meeting of the Basalt Lions Club at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church to tell his story. Suffering from an eye infection and unable to wear his lenses that day, he needed help from his mother and girlfriend in picking out his clothes, navigating the stairs of the church and making his way through the crowd. He wore dark glasses and shuffled tentatively through the dozen or so Lions who had gathered. When it was time, he stood up and shared his story. Although he only spoke for five minutes, his words resonated with the group. “We all realized he is someone who definitely needs help,” says John Spencer, a past district governor and a Lion for more than 34 years. The Basalt Lions Club, which was chartered in 1957 and has 27 members, was more accustomed to filling such needs as providing eyeglasses for low-income children in the small, closely-knit bedroom communities near Aspen. But that didn’t prevent members from wanting to get involved. At its next meeting, the club voted unanimously to help Goodwin get the surgery he needed. “As Lions, eyesight is our main focus, whether that means glasses or eye exams or a corneal transplant,” says Spencer. “Our club had never had an opportunity like this before, but we knew this was something we had to do. He didn’t have to wait for social services and jump through hoops because the Lions organization has the wherewithal to make these things happen. When you are talking about a young man’s eyesight and you have the ability to do something, then shame on you if you don’t.” Spencer had spent 13 years as a trustee of the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Institute and knew exactly what to do. That night he e-mailed the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank, which agreed to be part of the effort and gave Spencer the names of five local ophthalmologists to contact. The eye bank would provide the donor tissue for free and match the funds the Basalt Lions Club raised, but it was up to Spencer to find a surgeon who was willing to perform the surgery at Medicare rates, about half the fee paid by private insurance. When the first surgeon who saw Goodwin was unable to reduce his fee sufficiently, Spencer had to start over and find a new doctor. Before long he located Dr. Jay Hoffman, an ophthalmologist in Grand Junction who was willing to perform the transplant. Already stunned by how much the Basalt Lions Club was doing for him, Goodwin was also impressed by how quickly and diligently the Basalt Lions worked on his behalf. One Sunday morning in late June while working his volunteer job managing the Basalt Farmer’s Market, Goodwin noticed a man he didn’t know setting up a table and went over to introduce himself. The man told him he was from the Basalt Lions Club and was selling raffle tickets to raise money for a local man who was facing blindness without a corneal transplant. “Would you like to be the first person to buy a ticket?” he asked. Goodwin looked down at the pamphlets on the table and saw his photo and a brief story about himself headlined “Basalt Man Faces Blindness.” He laughed. “Well, I better buy some seeing as I’m the guy on the pamphlet,” he told the seller. Moved to Tears On July 21, 2009, less than eight months after he first spoke to the Basalt Lions Club, Goodwin received a corneal transplant. During the 90- minute outpatient procedure, Hoffman excised the diseased cornea in Goodwin’s eye, replaced it with a healthy cornea from a donor and sewed it into place with 32 tiny stitches. Goodwin began noticing an improvement in his vision within a few hours of the surgery. Earlier that morning on the two-hour drive to the hospital, his mother asked him if he could see the white tractor trailer driving right in front of their Jeep. He could not. That afternoon just a few hours after surgery, she asked her son from across the room, “How many fingers am I holding up?” “Three,” he declared. “I think we both started crying,” Joni Goodwin says. “It was just so exciting.” In October of 2009, Goodwin returned to the Basalt Lions Club. This time, he didn’t need anyone’s help to select his clothes, climb the stairs or identify faces in the crowd. When he got up to speak, he could see the faces of the Lions he was addressing. He told them about how the transplant made it possible for him to wake up in the morning, open his eyes and see his alarm clock across the room without having to first feel his way to the bathroom and insert his contacts. He told them about his new job as a sous-chef at an Asian restaurant and how much he loves the responsibility of running a kitchen. Mostly he told them how grateful he was. “I just let them know how life changing this whole situation was and how much this surgery meant to me,” says Goodwin, who will undergo a corneal transplant on his left eye with Dr. Hoffman later this year that will be also be paid for by the Basalt Lions Club and the Lions Rocky Mountain Eye Bank. “I must have said ‘thank you’ like a hundred times.” By the time he finished talking, a handful of the people gathered in the church were in tears. “The Lions who work on projects like this become Lions deep down in their hearts,” says Eileen Sanderson, a Lion who is on the board of directors of the Lions Rocky Mountain Eye Bank. “Once you’ve been involved in restoring someone’s sight you don’t forget it.” And perhaps the next time someone who needs a corneal transplant comes to the Basalt Lions Club, Goodwin might be one of the Lions working so hard to make the surgery happen. “It’s absolutely in the plans for me to become a Lion one day,” he says. “Definitely.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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