Gift of donated cornea changes a life

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The gift of vision changed Jennifer Barton’s life.

The effects of chronic eye rubbing as a child from uncontrolled allergies left Jennifer with corneas so thin she couldn’t read the largest letter on a vision test.

She realized her vision was slipping away as she sat through lectures in university. Her friends would comment on how much she was squinting.

“I didn’t think it was that serious, and just thought I might need glasses,” said Jennifer.

Jennifer’s optometrist diagnosed her with keratoconus, or deformed corneas. She spent the following two years at multiple eye appointments each week, often getting up  at  4 a.m. to begin the two-and-a-half-hour process of preparing her eyes for the day – first putting in soft contact lenses, then hard contacts overtop, only to have them fall out by noon.

“I didn’t have a life-threatening illness, but the daily frustration of losing my vision was very emotional,” she said.

Jennifer had a vision for her life; graduate and specialize in respiratory therapy, get married and have children. As her condition worsened, her future became less certain.

“I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to see my children grow.”

She was able to graduate from university with a lot of help from her friends and began her new career as a respiratory therapist, even though she had trouble seeing monitors at work.

After her optometrist had done everything she could to help Jennifer see, she referred her to a surgeon.  Within 48 hours, Jennifer was on an operating table receiving the gift of a new cornea in her right eye. Her vision was restored within three weeks.

Since 2006, Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) has had a culture that embraces organ and tissue donation as an integral part of end-of-life care. We have been a provincial leader in donation for many years, working closely with Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN) in its mission to increase the availability of organs and tissues for transplant.

In 2012, HHS expanded its partnership with TGLN by implementing Routine Notification and its tissue donation process to all inpatient units at the General and Juravinski Hospitals and McMaster University Medical Centre.

This expansion means an increase in the availability of tissue for transplant, which can be life-changing and even life-saving for a recipient:

  • After sight-restoring corneal transplant surgery facilitated through the gift of eye donation, recipients can return to work or school.
  • Donated skin can mean the difference between life and death for burn survivors.
  • Donated heart valves are used to replace the diseased or damaged valves of young children, giving them the chance to live  normal, healthy  lives.
  • Bone transplants return full mobility to patients of all ages, allowing them to resume active hobbies and live independently.

“Honouring and respecting the wishes of our patients and families enhances the lives of others in our community,”  said Nancy Glover, donation coordinator, Trillium Gift of Life.

Last year at HHS, 114 patients donated their corneas, restoring the gift of sight for 228 grateful recipients, and 11 multi-tissue donors resulted in potentially enhancing up to 750 individuals. Additionally, 34 families generously consented to organ donation after their loved one passed away, saving 129 lives through organ transplant.

Jennifer received the gift of a cornea from a  young child. “It  was overwhelmingly emotional to know that there were parents who were brave enough to change someone else’s life.”

“Skin and tissue is such a huge part of donation,” she adds. “It changes so much.”

Jennifer’s outcome was the best her surgeon could have hoped for with  20/25 vision in her right eye. She now has a successful career as a charge respiratory therapist at Hamilton General Hospital, is married and will continue to watch her four-and seven-year-old daughters grow.

Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week is April 21 – 28. In recognition, HHS is flying the Trillium Gift of Life flag for the month.

Register to be a donor at Beadonor.ca